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6 February 2006
Popular Food Myths – What’s The Truth?
by Katherine Burnett-Watson

Don’t go swimming for an hour after you eat, eating your crusts gives you curly hair and an apple a day keeps the doctor away. We know that grandma’s advice on food and eating wasn’t always based in scientific fact, but you’d be surprised at just how many food myths are still perpetuated today, long after they’ve been proven false.

It’s not surprising that today’s food labels actually cause more confusion than clarification, with “low fat”, “reduced fat”, “baked, not fried” and the like emblazoned upon packaging, appearing to give us the low-down on its contents and health benefits. But what do these catchy health labels really mean?

Well, for a start, reduced fat doesn’t mean the product is low in fat. Reduced fat products must have 25 percent less fat in them than the full fat version of the product, but many products claiming to be reduced fat are very high in fat to begin with. So even though consuming a reduced fat butter may be better than full fat butter, it’s still going to be high in fat compared to other food choices.

Also, reduced and low fat products may not be low in energy (calories). Many reduced fat or low fat foods and snacks are supplemented with other ingredients to make them taste good. If you’re looking at low fat yoghurt as a healthy treat, check out the sugar content. Many low fat products have high sugar content, to make them taste good once the fat has been removed. You might find that low fat yoghurts actually have a higher calorie count than full fat yoghurts because of the added sugar. And there’s the temptation to use more of a reduced or low fat product than a full fat one, thereby canceling out any “good” the reduced fat amount might do. You might put just a scrape of butter on your bread, but load up on the reduced fat cream cheese.

Then there’s the “baked, not fried” option. Potato chips and snacks that claim to be healthier because they’re baked, not fried, may not have a lower fat content than their fried friends. As with the “reduced fat” products, the products that tout the “baked, not fried” message are usually high in fat to begin with. If a product is high in fat, baking or frying it is not going to reduce that original amount of fat.

One of my favorite myths is that carob is healthier and lower in fat than chocolate. Now to foist carob onto someone with this reasoning in mind is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. Carob, a legume “substitute” for chocolate (I use the inverted commas here because as a chocolate lover I believe there can be no substitute) has the same amount of fat and calories as chocolate, and it tastes awful. (That last bit isn’t based on scientific research, just my opinion.) The only real difference between the two is that carob contains no caffeine or dairy, so if you’re looking for a caffeine-free or vegan alternative to chocolate, be my guest. Just don’t offer to share.

Another myth that continues to be perpetuated is that chickens are fed growth hormones to make them grow bigger, more quickly. Not true. Chickens produced or sold in the U.S. contain no added or artificial hormones. The U.S. government strictly regulates all feed additives and has never permitted any type of hormones to be added to feed or otherwise given to chickens. Federal regulations also prohibit the use of added steroids in poultry. The idea that chickens contain artificial hormones seems to stem from a television program produced and screened way back in 1985, in which hormonal abnormalities in young women in Puerto Rico were linked to the feeding of hormones - specifically estrogen - to chickens. Without actually saying so, the program implied that feeding hormones to chickens was a common practice worldwide, which is not true.

Fresh food is better than frozen, right? And organic food is better for you too? Not so, says the research. Fresh food is better for you than frozen, but the “fresh” food in the grocery store may have actually been picked weeks or months before it gets to you. Cold storage, combined with the use of carbon dioxide and ethylene oxide can prolong the shelf life of fresh fruit and vegetables, but the longer they go between being picked and eaten, the more nutrients they lose. Fresh frozen vegetables are snap frozen, usually within hours of being harvested, thereby retaining their nutrients until they are defrosted.

Organic food has been a really hot topic over the last few years, and with good reason. Concern over the health issues of foods treated with pesticides are fertilizers has led people to look for a healthier alternative. But you may not find it with organic foods. Just because organic foods are not treated with manufactured chemical pesticide and fertilizer doesn’t mean they are free of pesticides. Organic foods may be treated with organic pesticides, which are essentially the same chemical compound as manufactured pesticides, but are developed from their natural state, not developed artificially in a scientific laboratory. A number of scientific studies that compared organic and conventionally grown foods showed no difference in their key vitamin and mineral content, but organic foods have been shown to have lower nitrate levels and higher vitamin C and selenium levels than conventionally produced foods.

Vegetarian dishes must be a healthier choice. Not true. Some vegetarian dishes contain a lot of fat, especially if they're made with lots of cheese, oil, pastry or creamy sauces, or if they've been fried. So they aren't necessarily a healthy option. In fact, red meat can be low in fat if it's lean and all the visible fat has been removed. Other low-fat options are chicken without the skin, and fish, if they've been cooked without too much fat.

And another myth in the vegetarian vein: meat takes days to digest. Meat is actually digested within four to six hours of being eaten as opposed to fiber, which can take up to 72 hours to digest. And as for it taking seven years to digest a stick of gum? Your mom just told you that so you wouldn’t swallow it. While it’s harder to break down than regular food, it’s out of your body in around the same time.

Some food facts that might surprise you (well, they surprised me) include the fact that fat-free salad dressing is not necessarily the best choice. Some of the antioxidants in salad vegetables, such as tomatoes, are better absorbed if you have some fat with the food. A little olive oil in your dressing is actually going to help you absorb some of the nutrients that are in the salad.

And did you know that wine can contain fish, egg and milk products? Wine producers use derivatives of milk and fish to clarify the wine.

The final food fact I have for you is one that I was sure was an urban myth, but it turns out to be factually correct. Eating poppy seeds can mimic opium use. It’s true! Although we laughed at the notion when we saw Elaine get busted for drug use on Seinfeld after eating poppy seed bagels, scientific research shows that consuming just two poppy seed bagels may produce a positive test result for opiates. The upshot of this info? If you’ve got random drug screenings at your workplace, lay off the poppy seeds!

While many food myths just won’t seem to die, (for the last time Mother, I won’t grow a watermelon in my stomach if I swallow the seeds!) there’s one that I will hold as true no matter what the scientists tell me. The Five Second Rule for dropped food counts, and if it’s double chocolate brownie, the Ten Second Rule applies.

If you’d like to read more about food and diet myths – try The Ten Biggest Diet Myths and Health Secrets Revealed, by M. Warren Peary.

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