This week I’ve been binge watching ‘making a muderer’ on netflix. For those of you who’ve been hiding under a rock and haven’t seen it yet, it follows the now infamous murder trial of Steven Avery. So, I like a lot of people have got a bit obsessed with trying to figure out the big ‘did Avery do it’ question. I’ve spent obviously very productive hours this week thinking I could crack the case by googling, ‘did Avery do it’ and ‘how to tell if someone is lying’. But despite my secret belief that in another life I would have made an excellent spy, I more modestly had to come to the conclusion in the end that no one except the person who did it really knows what happened. There just doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he did it.
So how does this have anything to do with food? Well nothing really, except that it got me thinking that if you put most food health claims on trial the case would look very similar. All those gluten is bad, kale is a superfood type claims.
At the beginning of the show, when we first start hearing about the evidence against Avery, it seems like a pretty clear cut case. But then we learn that the prosecution may have alterior motives for pinning the crime on Avery. As the show goes on we start to find out more and more how the truth has been twisted and potentially completely fabricated to try and prove their case (obviously I’m in the police planted the evidence camp).
This often happens with health claims made about food. The problem with these claims is anyone can make them, food bloggers, journalists, nutritionists, celebrities. Unfortunately they tend to have their own agenda and most of these claims are made to sell you more stuff. If you dig a little deeper, you realise there is often a significant lack of reliable evidence behind these claims and the evidence they give is often questionable. Sometimes they rely on anecdotal evidence. Sometimes they are just pure myths that have been passed around the internet. Sometimes scientific evidence is presented, but the reaserch gets cherry picked and is often twisted and misinterpreted.
Take the case of gluten. There are endless sites telling you that gluten is toxic and everyone should stop eating it immediately. They talk about damaged microvilli and ‘leaky gut syndrome’. Science is added to back them up. But if you take a look at the evidence, you realise that the science is based on people with celiac disease, a disease characterized by a reaction to gluten. It’s pure fiction to use it to conclude that everyone should give up gluten. But condeming gluten is a good way to sell diets, blogs and recipe books.
It’s not just about twisting the evidence. As in the show, in the world of nutrition science, the evidence itself is rarely clear cut. Mainly simply because researching food and health is difficult. Diet usually effects our health over the long term. If you want to study the effects of it, you need to know what people are eating every day over months, years or even decades. How do you do this, you can’t lock people in a room for years on end controlling everything they eat. Even if they are prescribed a diet, we all know how well people tend to stick to diets. So scientists end up having to largely rely on self reporting, which is notoriously unreliable. Rather unsurprisingly people don’t tend to accurately report what they eat. That second slice of office birthday cake doesn’t count! Even science can be bad science.
The truth with most of these health claims is that we often do not know enough to make a proper conviction. But many people do. They trust that journalists, food bloggers and celebrities know what they are talking about. They change their diets based off unreliable information. We can see this is in the rise of the all the free from products filling supermarket shelves. People are cutting gluten from their diet just because Gwyneth Paltrow said so, when there really isn’t the evidence to say you should do so. It may seem like a good thing that people are trying to eat healthy and get others to, food is important to our health. But when it comes to health claims, maybe we shouldn’t submit a guilty verdict without reviewing the evidence first.