bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Can a chef trick you into preferring inferior food?

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Image of seafood saffron risotto taken by Gail on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Did anybody else see this article about a chef tricking restaurant patrons into indicating that they preferred an inferior version of saffron risotto over one using higher quality ingredients?

Diners were led to believe that they were helping the chef choose between two versions of a dish for a new menu item. The first used a “rich homemade chicken stock” and was introduced by means of a plain card listing the ingredients. The second version used “bouillon powder diluted with plain old tap water”. However, it was introduced by the “chef” (actually the restaurant owner pretending to be the chef) with a story about its origins from a childhood memory as well as a description of the provenance of each of the ingredients.

Seventy-seven percent of the diners rated the “inferior” risotto as preferable over the higher quality version. They also consistently rated this version more highly in “terms of perceived quality, overall taste, aesthetics, smell and portion size”. 

These “results” were interpreted as showing that people can be duped by chefs and that this is a result of the celebrity chef culture. Of course, this wasn’t a scientific experiment and doesn’t necessarily tell us this at all.

It may be true that people were influenced by the introduction of the food and the presence of the chef. We’ve certainly seen that food names and presentation can influence perceived quality through research done by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. However, this wasn’t scientific research and it irritates me that the article frames it as such. It’s entirely conceivable that the diners did actually prefer the “inferior” risotto. After all, the only apparent distinction between the two dishes was the use of homemade broth versus bouillon powder. Considering that many of us have palates that prefer the taste of salty food, diners may really have thought the bouillon version was better. It would be interesting to see the results of a true experiment examining the influence of the presence of a chef on the perception of meal quality.

I also find the whole “ha ha, we sure fooled you” sentiment a little over the top here. I mean, come on. It’s not like they tricked diners into believing the double down was fine dining. They swapped one ingredient, the broth, in a risotto recipe. It’s still practically the same recipe and it’s still freaking risotto.


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Dr Folta and Dr Blair and the problem with industry funding

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Photo: Coke de Plume by BFLV on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A couple of things happened in the scientific world in fairly short succession recently. I spent a lot of time waffling about whether or not I should write about them. Primarily because I don’t want to draw the ire of the pro-GMO community. I see a lot of rabid support for “science” on twitter and I fear being dismissed as anti-science. But this post isn’t about whether or not GMOs are great, or even whether or not they’re safe. It’s not about my opinions on genetic modification nor organic farming. “What is it about?” you ask. It’s about credibility and honesty in scientific research and dissemination of said research.

A few weeks ago the Internets got their collective panties in a twist because some scientists were revealed to have received money from Monsanto. In particular, one scientist received money to pay for his travel expenses in order to enable him to speak at events. Naturally, he was speaking in support of genetic modification, which aligns with Monsanto’s values. I’ve since seen his supporters claim that this information was freely available to anyone who was interested and that he had never failed to disclose his funding sources. I’ve also seen his detractors attribute quotes to him clearly stating that he did not receive money from Monsanto. I don’t know who to believe. It doesn’t really matter who I (or anyone) believes anyway. The important fact of the matter is that he received money from Monsanto to speak at conferences and events.

The following week the news broke that a number of scientists have been receiving funding from Coke (via a nonprofit organization) to support their research and other logistics. That research focusing on the import of exercise in weight management. Once again, the Internet was collectively outraged. Okay, I exaggerate. Nearly everyone I follow on twitter, and much of the mainstream media, were outraged. The researchers shrugged and said: what’s the problem, we’ve never hidden the fact that we received money from Coca Cola and that money had no influence on our research findings. Everyone rolled their eyes and said: um, bias, helllooo. 

Here we have two instances of scientific funding by organizations which have vested interests in the results. Here we have two groups of scientists saying that the funding doesn’t matter and that their findings would be the same no matter where the money was coming from. So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that by accepting financial support from organizations that have a vested interest in the results and the messages from theses scientists creates the perception of bias. Even if these scientists are completely impartial, and that’s being incredibly generous given the fact that the majority of industry funded research findings support the interests of the funders, it raises doubts about that impartiality. At worst, the scientists receiving the funding have a conflict of interest. At best, they have a perceived conflict of interest, and perception matters. It also makes for an uneven scientific playing field. If all of the players on one team are having their expenses covered by a benefactor then how can the other team hope to succeed. Even if they are better players, they can’t afford to go to out-of-town matches or find the time for extra practice.

If only the scientists with the pro-GMO message or the scientists with the pro-exercise message are given the platforms to share those messages how can we ever hope to find out the truth?


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The spice for life

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A recent study was being touted in the media for the benefits of eating spicy foods. The study looked at the diets of 512, 891 people (yes, that’s a huge sample size) in several areas of China. Participants were asked how often they ate hot spicy foods; never or almost never, only occasionally, 1 or 2 days a week, 3 to 5 days a week, or 6 or 7 days a week. Spicy foods were defined as; fresh chilli pepper, dried chilli pepper, chilli sauce, chilli oil, and other or don’t know. They found that those who consumed spicy foods most frequently were 14% less likely to die in the next five years than those who never or almost never consumed spicy foods.

Now, I love spicy foods, but I don’t eat them to live longer and this study isn’t really convincing me that any of us should be. One big precaution is the fact that the research was only looking at people in China. The effects may not apply to people of other ethnicities. Also, “spicy” is subjective. Something that I find only slightly spicy might be unbearably spicy to another person, and vice versa. There’s a huge risk of confounding variables when looking at things like this. It’s hard to say for certain whether any reduced risk of mortality can be attributed to the spice. In addition, the study looked at a huge range of ages (30-79) and many causes of mortality making it extremely difficult to ascertain whether or not spicy foods could be held accountable for keeping people alive. In fact, we don’t know if these people actually lived for longer, just that they were less likely to die during the course of the study.

Go ahead, go for the jalapenos if you like them, but don’t suffer through fiery meals 6-7 days a week in an effort to live a little longer.


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If I quit meat will I lose weight?

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This article was ALL OVER my twitter feed last week. I couldn’t help but wonder how much truth the headline “To shed pounds, going vegetarian or vegan may help” contained. You know, I have no doubt that it may help. I also have no doubt that it may not help, and that it may not be the only option.

The article states that the study (meta-analysis) concluded that following a vegetarian or vegan diet lead to greater weight loss than following an “average American diet”. At which point I was like “are you kidding me?!!“. Of course following a prescribed vegetarian or vegan diet is going to lead to more weight loss than a terrible diet consisting of heavily processed foods and few vegetables (aka the “average American diet”)! Especially when you’re only looking at the results over the course of the study. We all know that it’s easier to lose weight than it is to keep it off.

I was also left wondering how the authors decided which studies to include in their meta-analysis. There were only 12 studies used and I can’t imagine that there were only 12 studies that met their inclusion criteria. Is it possible that they were “cherry picking”? Someone want to do some pubmed searching and let me know? I don’t really have time for that so I suppose I’ll let them slide on that count and just leave the suggestion out there.

The authors themselves state that at most, the studies lasted for 18 months and it did appear that weight loss on these vegetarian and vegan diets was often not sustained over time. Therefore, while it’s possible that people will initially lose weight on vegetarian and vegan diets they may not keep the weight off over time. This may be due to reverting to normal dietary intake or to increasing consumption upon conclusion of study participation.

While this article tells us that at least 12 studies have shown vegetarian and vegan diets to be effective methods of short-term weight loss it doesn’t tell us if other diets are any more or less effective. There was no comparison made between low carb, high fat, high protein, calorie counting, mindful eating, or any of the kazillion diets that people undertake to lose weight. Perhaps there is an equally, if not more effective way to lose weight. As everyone is different, I would hazard a guess that, while going veg might help one person to lose weight it might not help another. Don’t feel that you have to give-up roast chicken to lose weight, and don’t be discouraged if you give-up meat and don’t see a change on the scale. There are many factors that contribute to weight loss, the consumption of animal products may or may not be one in your case.


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The dark green leafy truth about your kale smoothie

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I’ve been slacking again, sorry! No post on Monday and I had plans to write a post debunking this article about how kale is killing us all that a friend sent me over the weekend. My immediate reaction was that if kale is accumulating these toxins then it stands to reason that many other vegetables are, as if people need any discouragement from eating their veggies. My friend responded that it would be best if everyone stuck to corn dogs. Of course, that’s no solution as corn dogs are full of GMOs and carbs which we all know cause “grain brain”. Anyway… I was going to dig a little deeper but before I did, I saw this article by Julia Belluz that did that for me so, please, go read her article about how faulty the “science” is behind the headlines that kale is a killer. Sure, alliteration is a great literary device (possibly my favourite), it makes for great headlines, but it doesn’t make bad science good.

There are just a couple of things I really want to emphasis that Julia just touched on. First, despite what the articles indicate, this was not a strong scientific study. There was no true control group. There was no randomization of participants. This was a very small “sample” of 20 self-selected individuals who went to Ernie Hubbard for “detoxes” for myriad inexplicable medical complaints. Ernie started with the assumption that kale was causing their problems, he didn’t seek out other causes. His finding that they were all kale consumers was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Second, Please, please, please don’t stop eating vegetables because of these sensational headlines. The benefits from eating vegetables far outweigh any real risks. Variety is an essential part of any healthy diet so be sure to consume a wide variety of vegetables, including leafy greens and members of the Brassica family, such as kale.