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The unstoppable advance of food myths

The unstoppable advance of food myths

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

MAASTRICHT. Chinese human hair in bread, the nonsense concerning E-numbers, horsemeat being sold as beef, the hype around the goji berry. Nutrition is hot. Observant spoke to two professionals from Maastricht, a philosopher and a nutrition scientist. The discussion is often about food safety, while it should be about much more than that, says philosopher Dirk Haen. “How important is food to us? How do we prepare food, how do we consume?”

Sugar is poison. It is one of the many food myths on the Internet, says Fred Brouns, professor of Health, Food and Innovation. “American research showed a link between the obesity epidemic since the nineteen-seventies and the addition of sugars to all kinds of products. But that does not mean that sugars are the main cause of people being overweight, as is suggested on social media sites. Osteoporosis often goes together with grey hair, but we cannot conclude from this that hair colour causes osteoporosis. Sugar is not poison and it is not the main cause of obesity. The real problem is that we eat too much of everything, sugar, fat, salt, et cetera.”

Another myth: energy drinks are perilous because of the high dose of caffeine. Many schools have by now prohibited these drinks because they increase the risk of heart attacks. “A load of browbeating. Youths combine these drinks with alcohol and party drugs and that is the reason why some teenagers end up in the ER.”

Where do these urban legends come from? They are spread by (social) media, businesses, but also by scientists. “They should also acknowledge blame and send fewer overblown press releases into the world,” says Brouns. “I recently spoke with the UM’s  communication department and argued for more balanced messages. It is mostly the researchers themselves and not the communication staff who are beating the big drum. While, as far as I am concerned, they should be making it clear that the results are not chiselled in stone and that more research is necessary to be able to draw definite conclusions. Colleagues often look at the phenomenon differently and arrive at different conclusions on the basis of the same data.”

Brouns warns that one should be aware of how a press release is received, of the unintended consequences that it can have. “On the basis of the misunderstandings about sugar, all soft drink vending machines have been banished from schools in the US. In Denmark extra tax was put on sugar, a measure that has been overturned again. The government wants to show its decisiveness. A few weeks ago we put together a press release with a subtle message, in which we stated that although sugar does contain calories and should be used in moderation, it is not ‘poison’, as the papers stated.”


Leaking intestine

The media are not without blame either. Newspapers and TV programmes should spend more time checking the facts. “A single alarming news item easily reaches the front page, while the follow-up studies that prove the opposite are never quoted. Just look at the gluten hype. Wheat was alleged to be dangerous because the lectins and gluten that it contains can cause a ‘leaking intestine. Pseudoscience, but people are eating less bread in the Netherlands. While it has been determined that wholemeal bread greatly reduces the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.”

Businesses are doing their bit too. Brouns knows all about it, he has worked in various research & development departments for food producers such as Cargill and pharmaceutical companies, including Novartis and Sandoz. “In business there is always the tension between the researchers and the marketeers. Initial studies have barely been completed when marketers are already sending jubilant press releases into the world, while the results are not reliable until they have been repeated in follow-up studies. Anyway, that is how the game is played. In the UM master’s of Health, Food & Innovation that we offer in Venlo, students are taught not only by scientists but also by staff from businesses. This enables them to discover the differences in attitude and reasoning.”  


Spleen venting

In the meantime, the consumer is completely lost. Whom to believe? Such nonsense stories also existed in the nineteen-eighties, but they weren’t instantly sent out into the world via social media. As an experiment, Brouns decided to post messages on the Voeding NU journal's discussion forum, intended for interested lay people and professionals, for a year. The reactions were so “degrading and lacking in respect” that he abandoned the project prematurely.

“I did manage to publish quite a number of subtle messages, about sugar, gluten, but I put a premature stop to it. One receives so much slander. ‘Here we have another Diederik Stapel,’ someone wrote.  Or: ‘Go and read a book about nutrition!’ The European pharmaceutical watchdog EFSA fines businesses if they cannot live up to what they claim, but all and sundry can vent their spleens unimpeded. That shouldn’t be possible. I made it known on the forum that I didn’t like it. I once asked the UM lawyers how a university would deal with this type of thing, but apparently there is no code of practise.”

Brouns also contacted his former employer Cargill, when a forum member sneered: ‘Don’t believe him, he has worked with criminals.’ “The company’s response was stoical. ‘It happens all the time, they said. ‘We don’t respond to it simply because it happens too often.’ Nevertheless, the spleen venters should realise that they are responsible for the damage they cause.”

Dr. Oz

As a professor, he became involved in the forum discussion because scientists are often accused of failing to make their results accessible enough for lay people. Using social media is pointless, Brouns concludes. Which doesn’t mean that scientists have to stand back and watch powerlessly. “You can also make sure that you are visible in other ways. American universities make short videos of their findings and put these on YouTube in the form of popular lectures. We should do that in Maastricht as well. Make videos of some eight minutes in which we explain how things are in a neutral way. I am sure that the news will subsequently trickle through into social media.”

The most important tip that Brouns can give consumers is: don’t allow yourself to be driven crazy. Seek advice from renowned experts, the Voedingscentrum (Health Centre), the Dutch Association of Nutritionists or the Dutch Academy for Nutrition Sciences (of which Brouns is one of the two hundred experts). And not from an American television personality such as Dr. Oz. 

Maurice Timmermans


Who dines together with their family?

If you want, you could probably throw about twenty different packages of dishes from around the world in your shopping trolley. From South African Bobotie and Greek Kofta to Chicken Tandoori and Beef Chimichurri. Fry some beef or chicken and vegetables, open a packet of sauce, add water and hey presto! Why should you do things the hard way? And of course we do ask ourselves every now and again what we are really eating when we have Chimichurri, whether the E numbers are really harmless, and whether our minced steak is really beef or perhaps horsemeat. Anyway, it tastes good and it doesn’t make you sick.

For years, the discussions about food have had the same themes: health, environment and food safety. Consumers have their opinions, just like the food industry, scientists, food technologists and, last but not least, the government. According to philosopher Dirk Haen (1981), however, the debate should also be about the “more soft aspects: the influence of food on our eating culture, on our behaviour, who we are, how we value our food, how important food is to us, on our standards and values.” Haen believes that the food industry has to become “trustworthy” again, show that they realise what food is all about. Haen, a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, is finishing the last part of his thesis. His analysis of the Dutch debate on food and food technology is part of a Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research project (NWO) (in collaboration with Wageningen University), Socially Responsible Innovation in Food Technology.

Bags and packages

Critical consumers reckon that convenience food has left its mark on our eating culture. What does it mean to carelessly gobble up a container of ready-made lasagne? “People taste and smell less, spend less time in the kitchen, and spend fewer hours sitting at the table together than in the past.”

Haen refers to an article by culinary journalist and Internet chef Karin Luiten, published in NRC Next at the beginning of this year, prior to a debate about ‘bags and packages’. Journalists and scientists were eager to discuss the topic, Luiten wrote, but the food industry and shops appeared to be “quite a bit more difficult to get on board”. Unilever wasn’t really very interested, neither was Maggi. The Plus supermarket also cancelled.
Haen: “They dismiss these types of questions as ‘soft’, emotional and fearful. Manufacturers and shops can’t and won’t do anything with it. They don’t see why they should be worried about the eating culture. They feel: ‘Parents should tell their children where food comes from; teach them to taste and smell. If they don’t, then it’s their own fault.’”

Haen partly understands this rejective attitude, “but it is not the whole truth. A product, the technology (packaging, preserving, adding E-numbers, et cetera), also has a purpose. In the case of frozen pizzas, it is spending less time cooking. Manufacturers even advertise this advantage. Then you can’t put all the blame on the consumer.”

The customer is always right

Is Haens research a rap on the food industry’s knuckles? “Certainly not. I have only analysed how the debate has developed over the past twenty years and I concluded that parties are talking at cross purposes. The industry is answering questions that the consumer has not asked.” For example: “Consumers fear that with all this convenience food, we will lose out on a wealth of tastes. What does the industry say? ‘Don’t worry, it won’t make you sick’. But that is not an answer to the question? My advice is to listen to the public, take part in the debate, have the courage to be vulnerable.”
Still, producers also struggle with the wishes of their customers. The Maastricht philosopher spoke at a congress for managers in the food industry last month and noticed how they were torn two ways. “On the one hand, the customer is always right. ‘If they want nonsense, then we will give them nonsense.’ But on the other hand, manufacturers also want to be able to vouch for their own product and not just go with the flow. The latter is also what I recommend. Stand for what you produce, don’t just sit on the fence, you won’t gain any trust doing that – just look at politics – but try to understand what the customer is worried about.”

“I – and this is very personal – really can’t stand when people talk at cross purposes. Aside from that, innovations in food technology cost a lot of money. Society and businesses invest together, so it is a waste if you don’t communicate with the consumer about what good food is!”

Lastly, whom should we believe in the whole debate on food? Manufacturers, scientists or grandmother? Is red wine unhealthy or healthy? What about coffee and sweeteners. “We need to put the tremendous role of food scientists a little into perspective. They arrive at new insights every year. Coffee is a good example: one study shows that it is poison, while another proves that it is really healthy. I feel that we should use our own common sense, follow our taste, ask other people what they eat and talk about it.”

Wendy Degens 







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