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The Babe Wars: Food vs. Science

April 7, 2015

I love science. Forget all the amazing technology that we completely take for granted on a daily basis, and how it borders on magic. We have non-addictive pain medication like Advil that can take something small like a throbbing headache and make it go away. The improved quality of life this brings is virtually immeasurable.

Vaccines, electric lights, hot water heaters, indoor plumbing, the sewing machine, air conditioning, and more all owe a debt to the intellectual rigors of science.

I love food. Tell me what pleasures are greater than a ripe strawberry picked at its peak, garnet red through to its core, and bursting with sunshine. Or a perfectly ripe peach that is so packed with sweet juice that it’s impossible to eat without covering your chin and forearms in its sticky glory. Just yesterday we were talking about tender spring peas so delicate that even a picky child delights in eating them, pod and all.

Fragrant basil, hot garlic, fiery peppers, earthy mushrooms, and crisp radishes are just a small fraction of nature’s bounty. It’s nothing short of amazing that you can make bread with little more than wheat and water (of course, salt, sugar, and fat can all help to make it better).

Food and science are inextricably linked. However there is also an ideological divide that’s raging right now, and I have to say, I’m on both sides.

Maybe you read The Science Babe’s takedown of The Food Babe yesterday on Gawker.

I do wish that Food had a better spokesperson than The Food Babe. I’ve never agreed with her fear-mongering tactics, but she’s been able to make significant gains where others have failed.

Some will rightly criticize her for indefensible stances against the inclusion of chemicals in our food. All food is chemicals. But if you can look past the missteps, one of the things she’s fighting against is the double standards food manufacturers have for their products. For example, McDonald’s doesn’t use an anti-foaming agent or a preservative in its cooking oil abroad.

Technological optimists could argue that what the chain uses domestically is superior and reduces waste. Technological pessimists might suggest that the domestic option is filled with synthetic additives designed solely for the sake of corporate profits at the expense of consumer health.

I can’t speak to the science behind it. However, European regulators have been much more cautious than their American counterparts regarding what businesses are permitted to feed its citizens.

Does Yellow #5 affect the behavior of children? I’m absolutely positive that it does. And I’m absolutely positive that the beverage industry knows this. These are the things you learn when you get soda company executives drunk at a business party. I had a fascinating career before moving to upstate New York. Europe doesn’t tolerate it. America thinks it’s just fine.

Here’s the thing. Scientists don’t always agree with each other.

What people seem to forget is that Science doesn’t provide an ultimate answer. Science is a process of questioning what we know and getting closer and closer to some kind of truth. Just don’t tell that to a scientist who has achieved some major breakthrough.

Much of the talk about the supremacy of science seems deeply filled with hubris. Science often gets it wrong. Especially where food is concerned.

It was science that thought margarine was better than butter.
It was science that thought DDT and Alar were okay to spray on crops.
It was science that brought us leaded gasoline, which is now in your grape juice.
It was science that thought partially hydrogenated fats were fine for human consumption.
Doctors used to endorse cigarette brands.
Shoe stores used to X-ray children’s feet.

Science is awesome, but scientists are not infallible. And let’s not forget the great lesson of Jurassic Park. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should do it.

Yes, the Food Babe loses credibility every time she talks about toxins or suggests her followers eat lettuce “tacos” filled with quinoa. But she’s also getting people to read labels and wake up to what’s going into their food.

The real issue with azodicarbonamide (the infamous yoga mat chemical) in many commercial brands of bread isn’t that it’s going to kill you. Bread is a thing, and that thing has just a small handful of ingredients. When the list of dough conditioners, sweeteners, preservatives, and emulsifiers starts dominating the ingredients statement, I think we’ve got a problem. I’m not even sure if it’s still okay to call the resulting product “bread.”

But my argument isn’t terribly sexy. It’s not going to get people angry. Few are going to stand up and take action. That requires something a bit more incendiary, and the Food Babe delivers on that.

A while ago, I realizes she was starting to do more harm for the cause than good. And that’s sad to see.

Because the pro-science agenda is pushing the safety of glyphosates and the current best practices of the American food industry. And mark my words, we’re going to look back on this era in history much like we look back on when we used lead and arsenic-based insecticides. We’ll say, “What were we thinking?”

Science is powerful. But so is history and sociology. Of course there’s also economics.

The funny thing is that when science isn’t being used to further the profit motives of a corporation’s shareholders, it can be put into great use for elevating the food we eat. Thanks to Greg K. and his blogroll, I came across this marvelous story on how to make Ginger Milk Curd and why this recipe actually works. Fascinating stuff. Much more fascinating than the catfight between the two babes.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2015 10:49 am

    Nice work, sir.

  2. April 7, 2015 2:17 pm

    These really are some excellent rationalizations to support your positions…

  3. Jack C permalink
    April 7, 2015 3:22 pm

    By no means am I a committed feminist looking to out all potential non-PC terms used on the ‘net, but calling a brawl between two prominent women a “catfight” is a bit demeaning, no?

    • April 7, 2015 5:41 pm

      I got called out for this on Facebook too. Not all gender feminists agree on this matter for this particular feud between the self appointed “Food Babe” and “Science Babe.” But to make more compelling arguments in the future that don’t get derailed by lengthy discussions about gender politics, “catfight” has been removed from my lexicon.

  4. April 7, 2015 3:29 pm

    I admire anyone who can keep up the argument against the “better living through chemistry” food system we have – a lot of us get ground down and demoralized.

    But about the ginger milk curd: YUM YUM YUUUUUM. Have you tried it with a little turmeric?

  5. November 22, 2016 10:41 pm

    Ruth Reichl tweeted the link to a new report on glyphosate: https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.fooddemocracynow.org/images/FDN_Glyphosate_FoodTesting_Report_p2016.pdf

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