Appalled by what he calls “quacks in scientific garb,” Dr. Joseph Schwarcz is on a mission to demystify science, separate sense from nonsense, and help people learn to make sensible decisions about food. Despite the fact we eat (and overeat) three or more times a day, “there’s a lot of confusion over food and eating,” he says.
Schwarcz was the featured speaker at the general session of the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the last day of January. A chemist by training, he heads the Office of Science and Society at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The office was created 12 years ago to foster critical thinking about food. This year, 2011, has been declared the International Year of Chemistry, and Schwarcz wants to get the word out: Kids need to study science, and understand it, and use it in their daily lives, all their lives. Chemistry and chemicals aren’t dirty words.
Schwarcz has a lot of opinions about food, but what’s important is how opinions are formed. “There is so much information and disinformation, so much published information out there,” he said. But people need to evaluate the quality of the information.
Schwarcz was critical of people who are looking for the miracle product or cure, but he trod lightly around production agriculture. While he made it clear he favors genetically modified plants and doesn’t believe plants care where they get their chemicals from, he didn’t mention organic farming directly. Nor did he tackle the many commodity organizations that promote or market their particular commodity based on health claims—although he did take on exaggeration and the overextension of data.
Journalists create part of the problem, he said, because in their efforts to tell both sides, they fail to weigh the sides. “They’re not trained to give weight,” he said.
“The two sides are many times not of equal weight,” he said. “The opinions of a couple of odd ones shouldn’t offset the opinions of thousands of reputable scientists.” This occurs in articles about global warming, for example, and is used in marketing miracle foods and food supplements. People are always looking for miracle foods, but they don’t exist, he said.
“It is not just an adage. It is true we are what we eat. Food builds our bodies. Food is a collage of thousands of compounds. We are a bag of chemicals,” he added. People shouldn’t be looking for some specific food or one magic pill, but for a good mixture of foods. That, plus some exercise, leads to good health, he explained.
“Chemical should not be a dirty word,” he added. “Unless you talk about numbers, you can make people crazy. Our ability to find tiny levels of pesticide residues is amazing, but what do they mean? There are poisons in apples, but what does that mean? The dose makes the poison.”
Schwarcz warns about making too much out of associations. An association is not a cause and effect. Watch out for the words “linked to,” commonly found in scary headlines. “Associations are an interesting starting point for research. But remember, breast cancer is associated with wearing skirts, but that doesn’t mean wearing skirts causes breast cancer.”
“Longevity does not provide evidence something is good for you,” he said. There are old whiskey-drinking smokers. And rumors about 130-year-old yogurt-and-dried-fruit eaters in the Himalayan Mountains should be suspect.
There are substances that will do some good things. Resveratrol in red wine is good for you, but alcohol has been shown to cause cancer. Oats will reduce cholesterol, if you eat a lot of oats. Fruit is good for you, but it’s high in sugar, and obesity is a major problem.
Over the years, major battles have been fought over whether milk is good for adults, whether butter or margarine is better, and whether eggs are good for you. In many cases, it took years for science-based answers to overcome marketing-based exaggerations of pieces of data.
Sometimes, some bad things about foods are true. Cooking meat proteins and fat over high heat does create cancer-causing chemicals. Nitrates in processed meats are not very good for you.
He endorses the idea of eating five to nine servings a day of fruits and vegetables, in a whole mixture of colors and flavors.
The idea that food is a collage of chemicals is important when we consider such things as genetically modified plants. “Some people think we shouldn’t play God, but we need to play God if we’re going to solve the problem of having enough food,” he said. “These genes aren’t scary things; they’re just protein.
“We need to base our beliefs on science. Of course, science is not immune to mistakes, but it’s still the best way to go.”
Schwarcz is well known in Canada, where he appears on television and radio and in newspapers and books as “Dr. Joe.” He was the chief consultant on the Reader’s Digest bestsellers Foods That Harm, Foods That Heal and The Healing Power of Vitamins, Minerals and Herbs and contributed the chemistry chapter to the best-selling Mental Floss. His books Radar, Hula Hoops and Playful Pigs, The Genie in the Bottle, That’s The Way The Cookie Crumbles, Dr. Joe and What You Didn’t Know, The Fly in the Ointment, Let Them Eat Flax, Brain Fuel, An Apple A Day, and Science, Sense and Nonsense, have all been bestsellers. His latest book, Dr. Joe’s Brain Sparks, was released last fall.