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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Infographics; heavy on the graphics, light on the info

Every body loves a good infographic. They’re eye-catching, succinct ways of sharing information. The problem is, for the most part, they oversimplify complicated information. At best, that means that viewers end-up getting only a partial picture of an issue. At worst, that means that they hasten the spread of misinformation.

Take the example of the viral Coke infographic.

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This was all over the place a few weeks ago and it made me want to tear out my hair. Don’t get me wrong, I personally dislike Coke (and pop in general) and I’m no fan of their marketing to developing nations and children, but I don’t want to dissuade people from drinking Coke using questionable science. Since this infographic went viral fellow RD Andy Bellatti wrote an excellent piece about it.

Following hot on the footsteps of the original Coke infographic came the Diet Coke infographic:

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And then…

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As Andy points out in his article, such infographics only provide information (and not necessarily accurate information as many people aren’t consuming these beverages in isolation) about a brief period of time. There’s nothing about the long-term implications of regular or excessive consumption of these drinks, which is the real concern. An occasional Coke isn’t going to kill you. It’s the daily, often multiple times a day, consumption of Coke that becomes a concern.

These are just a very small example of the infographics out there. Even when infographics are grounded in good science and information, when taken on their own they may not tell you the whole story. Anyone can put together an infographic. If you want the full picture you need to look beyond the graphic and find more info.


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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.


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Haters gonna hate

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It’s been a while since I lacked blogspiration. But here I am, I’ve scrolled through facebook and twitter for something to get riled up about and I must admit it was slim pickings. Sure, it’s irksome that Pippa Middleton has “secretly” become a nutritionist. Not so much so that I could be bothered to write an entire blog post about it. Mother Jones has moved on from almonds and is now telling us that there will be no more salads because of the drought in California. Yes, I know that this drought is a serious issue and I really feel for the people of Cali. However, for now, my local farmer’s market has got me covered thank you very much. The only thing that really got even the tiniest bit under my skin was a tweet from a doctor saying that nutritionists think they have more information than they actually do. By nutritionists, I’m pretty sure he also meant dietitians, based on the thread. Why thank you doctor, I’m sure that your nutritional expertise far exceeds that of those of us who studied nutrition at university for four years and continue to do so after graduation. Thank you ever so much for the professional support. Obviously we should just give up on this emerging field and let you do all of the nutrition educating.

To be honest, sometimes I do want to give it up. To say “screw it! Let them have their gluten-free charcoal smoothies. See if I care!”. It’s frustrating working in a field where the science is constantly changing and which is incredibly difficult to study at all. In a field that everyone fancies themselves an expert in based on the sole fact that they eat. A field that is constantly being attacked by hacks, journalists, and other healthcare professionals alike. All of them pushing their latest miracle diet. A field in which so few people understand what exactly it is that we do. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and become an electrician. Kids, trades are where the jobs are at. Uni is great and all but a BA is the new high school diploma.

The thing is though, I love food. I love cooking it, eating it, and sharing that love with others. And despite what some may believe, I know quite a bit about it. Just because we don’t know the optimal amount of kale to eat each week doesn’t mean that we don’t know enough to help others improve their health through good nutrition. Healthy eating isn’t complicated, it’s true. It’s not rocket science or neuro-surgery. Yet, somehow, most people don’t seem to be able to manage it anymore. Helping people learn how to improve their diets isn’t just about vitamins and minerals. In fact, it’s not really about them at all. It’s about helping people prioritize their health and food. Getting them into the kitchen. Yes, we can tell you all about the different types of fibre, how to make cheese, the structure of all of the essential amino acids. We know the science behind food. We also know that this isn’t what’s important when helping people to lead healthier lives.