Should one take a knock-out dose of vitamins as influenza prevention? Purposefully look for everything marked with «Organics» and «GMO-free» on shop shelves? Avoid products with sodium glutamate and gluten? Or refuse from an apple containing preservatives and antioxidants
Within the Time of Victories with Tricolor TV project aimed at popularization of healthy lifestyle we have gathered the myths bothering a contemporary man concerned about the condition of his organism and discussed them with biologist, popularize of science, The Educator prize winner for the book «The Sum of Biotechnologies», member of the RAS Committee on combating pseudo science Aleksandr Panchin.
Aleksandr, there is overabundance of information about useful and harmful food products. Could you help us make out what is really and what is a misconception or provocation? First of all, remembering your book «The Sum of Biotechnologies» we suggest discussing genetically modified organisms. Could you tell us, please, what GMO are and how should we treat a product with such a mark?
Never has the man eaten more safely than now. Therefore, the first thing which I strongly recommend to everybody when it comes to food is to calm down. The worst thing which may happen is the product is spoilt, it has got pathogens capable of causing dysentery, for example. This problem has not yet been fully eliminated but fewer and fewer people get to hospital with intestinal poisoning. This is largely due to the very broad field of food safety where different preservatives are used which help prevention of pathogenic organisms growth. And different methods of protecting plants from pests are already a field of bioengineering. We can create a plant resistant to fungal infections. Thaumatin protein, for example, has fungicide (antifungal — Editor’s note) properties. Thaumatin is thousands times sweeter than sugar but it is used not as its substitute but for flavor correction, i.e. the sugar content is not increased because of thaumatin use in a product. Thus, having developed sweeter fruits or plants we will simultaneously protect them from fungi.
Or let us take papaya. The ordinary papaya on the Hawaii has been destroyed by a virus almost completely but scientists have created a genetically modified one which the virus won’t touch. This is its only new property, it has no other differences from ordinary papaya. Cultivation of plants is on the rise again and the recent problems have been forgotten as if they were a frightening dream.
Actually what is a GMO? Scientists use methods of gene engineering to change the hereditary material of some organism in a more precise and reliable manner than before. Because people have been long changing the gentic material by means of selection. In selection, though, genes change in a very strong and uncontrolled way. Let us compare the present corn and its wild relative — teosinte. The latter will appear to be unattractive, dark, hardly edible spikelet differing greatly from the present corn: gene changes are behind it.
And why, in your opinion, do people have an impression that selection is safe while GMO are horrible and are to be avoided to the maximum?
People make the so-called «naturalistic phallacy»: the statement that everything natural is useful while artificial is harmful. This can be easily refuted.
In the USA there are annually more than 10 million cases of food poisonings, with over three thousand people dying from it. In the absolute majority of cases the poisonings are related with natural pathogenic viruses and microorganisms getting into your gastrointestinal tract together with unwashed vegetables, greens, raw fish or meat.
Clostridia producing alpha-toxins and botulinum toxins, pathogenic strains (malignant varieties) of E. coli, salmonella, listeria, shigella resistant to many antibiotics, S. aureus, hepatitis A virus, noroviruses, enteroviruses, rotaviruses, pathogenic amoebae, ascarids and other roundworms as well as parasitic flatworms are far from the complete list of absolutely natural pathogenic organisms encountered in «GMO-free» products (including those labeled «Organic»).
As opposed to that, «artificial» preservatives which everybody is scared of so much help to suppress growth of microorganisms, protect the product from mold and formation of toxins of microbial origin.
It is important that food should be high-quality, safe, tasty and useful. Being natural is not a guarantee of the positive result here. Neither does being artificial guarantee it, however. But they try to make artificial at least maximum safe and good.
And what can you say about sodium glutamate?
Glutamate is the glutanic acid salt which is an amic acid being part of any proteins. And sodium is a component of ordinary salt. That is, sodium glutamate is something absolutely non-alien for our organism. What it is used for: we have special receptors owing to which we distinguish the taste of sweet, salty, bitter, sour... and then there is the «meat taste» — it is called «umami». This is what the taste of sodium glutamate is. There is a lot of it in protein food while sodium glutamate allows adding this palpable flavor to nonmeat products (due to the flavor arising in dissociation of acid anion — Editor’s note).
The lethal dose of sodium glutamate is much higher than that of salt. Let us assume that if a dish is oversalted, it becomes untasty, right? The same happens with food if much glutamate is added. It acquires a disgusting taste, and you won’t voluntarily eat a portion which contains a dose of sodium glutamate hazardous for health.
The concerns actually started after the popular legend about the so-called «syndrome of Chinese restaurants». There was an anecdotic case: a man informed that after visiting a Chinese restaurant he had some strange sensations, some numbness which allegedly emerged because of sodium glutamate (Robert Kho Man Kvok involved in biomedical research wrote in Readers’ Letters column of the most credible medical edition in the world The New England Journal of Medicine. — Editor’s note). Subsequently it was never confirmed, of course.
Nevertheless, mass media caught the legend up and took it to the public.
A standard situation with mass media. And they don’t even understand what damage they actually inflict. Because people are like this: if they are intimidated by something, it can tell both on their mood and health. But what if a man has heart problems and he is told that he has just eaten a terrible poison? The man may become very nervous.
There has even been a research: people were divided into two groups. One half of them were told that wireless radiation was very hazardous and the second half were made convinced of its safety. Both groups were announced that Wi-Fi was turned on (in fact it was not). The people from the first group grabbed their heart in earnest and asked to stop the experiment.
It has recently become fashionable to state for or without some reason that the product does not contain gluten. Where does the opinion come from?
Gluten is the same group of proteins included in seeds of gramineous plants. There is some percent of people with a genetic feature: gluten intolerance. (The genes of people with the hereditary celiac disease perceive gluten with hostility and set the cells responsible for protection of the organism at it; therefore, an inflammatory bowel disease starts. — Editor’s note). It is really better for them to abstain from using it but such diagnosis can be made by physicians only. However, the idea that it is very hazardous and must not be basically eaten spread fast.
Now we have started speaking about the composition. A big array of components starting with «E...» makes an unprepared consumer doubt about the quality of the product. And what is the actual situation?
«E...» in the composition means that that a certain code will be assigned to the substance in the European classifier of additives after its safe dose is determined. If «E...» is stated in the composition on the package, we understand that this substance will be present in the product in a regulated dose. The most natural apple contains antioxidants E300, E330, E334, E363, E375; красители E101, E140, E160a, R163, E181; preservatives E260; E270; E280; E296 as well as the glutamate mentioned above and many other additives starting with E letter. For example, E300 is vitamin C, ascorbic acid. Or apple acid, oxalic acid. A multitude of different quite natural components. And it is not even important that they are natural — we have just learnt that this is a naturalistic fallacy. But it is important that these are just some compounds normally utilized by the human organism. The statement «We are against E-additives!» is basically absurd because then nothing is to be eaten. Such components are available in some concentration in any food.
There is an opinion that medicated vitamins are practically of no use. Is it so?
There are some people having vitamin deficiency. But this diagnosis is also set by a physician based on an examination. And only if the physician determines based on analyses that the organism lacks a particular vitamin, it may be administered.
In general, hypervitaminosis, that is excess of vitamins, is also bad. And excessive vitaminization in the absence of real indications thereto comes to nothing good.
Now, all these tablets-sparklers, polyvitamins... Which people sometimes take like candy.
Some of them are just tasty. Vitamins should be taken on medical indications or if a person is to keep a specialized diet. For example, a dietarian excluding certain products from your food ration based on his own considerations can recommend additives to you to compensate for deficiency of certain vitamins. But such decisions should be made together with a specialist — you will never come to such a conclusion independently.
You certainly understand that there are enough people who will never go to the doctor until their arm starts falling off or they start having attacks with loss of consciousness. The more so they will seek medical advice to find out which vitamin their organism may lack. Should they be concerned about this at all?
If people keep a balanced diet and use various foods, problems are unlikely. We live at the time of abundant food, there is a variety of it, loads of it. Problems used to be experienced by navigators who put off on a long journey. When you have only dried meat onboard and a dramatic deficiency of vitamin C, teeth may fall out because of scurvy. But you will agree that it is hard to imagine this in the present world. Therefore, if you feel fine, carry on. If you feel bad, go to the doctor.
And the last question: do you think that anything has changed in the minds of consumers of homeopathic medicines after adoption of the Memorandum about the pseudoscientific character of homeopathy?
This is a complicated thing. There are a lot of examples of people who have refused to take homeopathic medicines. But this argument is typical of homeopathy: they may say that if it has helped their grandmother, it works. The fact that several people stopped taking homeopathic medicines after the adoption of the Memorandum does not exclude the possibility that there are people who started taking them, on the contrary, out of protest.
No statistics can be drawn on this.
But most mass media shared this story in a positive way explaining readers why homeopathy does not work. It means that people are informed, at least. Now they will make the decision with account of scientific knowledge. They may be at odds with the ideas stated in the Memorandum but this will be their conscious choice, at least.
To go to the press release about the Time of Victories with Tricolor TV project