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Don't Fall for These Food Myths!

By Terry Dunkle
Reprinted from

Food Myths

I don't know about you, but anytime I hear a generalization repeated more than a dozen times without any citation of evidence, I begin assuming it's false. I started the habit early. Once, as I pawed over a bunch of bananas in my grandmother's kitchen, she said to me for the umpteenth time, "Just one, now. They're hard to digest."

"No they're not," I said, snapping off two. "'Ever seen a sick monkey?"

She swiped at me with her rolled-up copy of the Grit, but as usual, I dodged the thing.

Today I know the truth about bananas: They're extraordinarily easy to digest when ripe, but not when they're green—which is why people who eat green bananas always cook them. Green bananas are mostly starch, whose giant molecules must be snipped apart by the digestive system before the body can absorb them. Ripe bananas have already predigested their own starches into tiny sugar molecules that pass readily into the bloodstream.

I was going to explode a half-dozen other food myths in this article, but the funny thing is, when I looked into the evidence, I discovered that some of them were actually true. (Which reminds me of something else Grandma always said: "You learn something new every day.")

Below are six oft-repeated statements about food. You've probably heard most of them. Without peeking at the answers (printed at the end), can you tell which are true?

Fact or Fiction?

  1. Eating a steak dinner can trigger a heart attack.
  2. Don't feed your dog chocolate—it'll poison him.
  3. Singer "Mama" Cass Elliot died from choking on a ham sandwich.
  4. The best Cajun cooks always spit in the food.
  5. A disgruntled customer has been giving away a company's secret cookie recipe on the Web.
  6. Manufacturers are putting cancer-causing chemicals in our foods.


Answers below. (Don't peek until you've guessed!)

1. Eating a steak dinner can trigger a heart attack.

True—if you already have a bad heart. Studies of heart-attack incidence have revealed a statistically significant spike after high-fat meals.

There's a physiological explanation. Of the 1124 calories in a 12-ounce porterhouse steak (my favorite), a whopping 72 percent are fat. Elevated fat levels in the blood can trigger production of "free radicals" that cause vessels to constrict, shutting off part of the heart's oxygen supply. The result can be cardiac mayhem.

(You might protect yourself with a cup of tea. In one study, a scientist at Tokyo Medical University in Japan monitored ten people who had just eaten a fatty meal. Five had drunk black tea with dinner; the others, plain water. The tea drinkers scored higher in blood flow and antioxidant capacity than the water drinkers did.)

2. Don't feed your dog chocolate—it'll poison him.

True. Chocolate contains a caffeine-like compound called theobromine. If a dog gets enough of this, it will trigger a seizure or a heart attack—particularly if the pooch is prone to epilepsy or has become overly excited.

This means that if you really want to get rid of a dog, your best bet may be a couple of Hershey bars and a live rabbit.

Well, actually, the lethal dose depends on the size of the dog and the type of chocolate. The killer serving is approximately one ounce of milk chocolate, one-third ounce of semisweet chocolate, or one-tenth ounce of baker's chocolate per pound of dog. This means I need 15 Hershey bars to knock off Wally the Schnauzer (22 pounds)—but if I go for the Special Dark, I can do it with only eight.*

Question: What if your dog comes to you extremely jittery, with a chocolate ring around his mouth and Nestlé Crunch on his breath?

Answer: If you think he's wolfed down anywhere near the lethal dose, 1) stick your fingers down his throat and, 2) call the veterinarian. If all else fails, feed him (the dog, not the vet) activated charcoal or extremely black burnt toast. Any theobromine that's still in his stomach will chemically bond with the carbon and be safely eliminated in that stuff we often step in.

* No animals were harmed during the writing of this article.

3. "Mama" Cass died from choking on a ham sandwich.

False. This is one of the most widely repeated myths in rock-music history.

When the overweight contralto for the Mamas & Papas dropped dead in a London flat on July 29, 1974, initial press reports said that her doctor had guessed she "probably choked to death on a sandwich." But a leading forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy found no food in her trachea. (No drugs, either.) He and the coroner blamed the death on a massive heart attack stemming from long-term obesity. Cass stood 5' 5" (until she died, that is) and weighed 238.

Nevertheless, the "sandwich" story stuck, and was soon embellished with the word ham, possibly as an anti-Semitic jab. (Elliot was Jewish, born Ellen Naomi Cohen.) Today, of course, her heart problem might well have been detected early and treated with anti-cholesterol drugs and, of course, DietPower.

4. The best Cajun cooks always spit in the food.

False. Sometimes they forget.

(I'm kidding, okay?)

Julia Child happened to be on "Larry King Live" the night I was pondering this question, and she said nice things about Cajun food, but she also admitted that she didn't know much about it, so I didn't bother phoning her. (She died a year later, at age 91.)

Instead, I searched the Food Network's Web site (21,000 recipes) for Cajun + spit. It turned up no recipes containing both words. So I really don't know the answer to this one (please if you do), but I'm pretty sure that a) the practice would be illegal in a public restaurant, and b) any germs it might spread would be boiled or fried to death anyway.

5. A disgruntled customer has been giving away a company's secret cookie recipe on the Web.

False. This is an urban legend that's older than the Internet. In the original story, the cookie company was Mrs. Fields. (I heard a similar tale about a cake recipe in the 1950s, however.) Lately, a new version has been circling the globe via email. It usually goes like this:

In the restaurant at a Neiman-Marcus store, a shopper is served an incredibly delicious chocolate-chip cookie. She asks for the recipe. The waiter says, "I'm sorry, madam, but it's a secret." She wheedles and cajoles, and finally the waiter summons the manager. "I'll give you the recipe," the manager whispers, "but you must keep it quiet, and it will cost you two-fifty." Surprised at the price, she eagerly accepts. Later, she finds the recipe written on her check along with the words "Cookie Recipe, $250." She protests that she's been hornswoggled, but the manager insists that after all, she did get the recipe she ordered—and it was a secret. Now, to get even, she's trying to send the recipe free to everyone in the world. "Please forward it to at least ten of your friends," says the email, "and tell them to do the same!"

It's true that Neiman-Marcus sells a delicious chocolate-chip cookie. But the recipe isn't secret. In fact, the company publishes it on its own Web site, along with a note saying, "Copy it, print it out, pass it along to friends and family. It's a terrific recipe. And it's absolutely free." (Click here to see it.)

(My theory is that a clever marketer at Neiman-Marcus, having heard the Mrs. Fields version years ago, realized it would spread like wildfire on the Web. The marketer put out a few anonymous emails and forum posts that cited Neiman-Marcus instead of Mrs. Fields, and boom!—a billion dollars worth of free advertising.)

6. Manufacturers are putting cancer-causing chemicals in our foods.

True—but it's not what most people think.

First, let's deal with the word chemical. Because you're smart enough to use DietPower (or at least to visit our website), I'm sure you already know that a chemical is "any substance with a distinct molecular composition that is produced by or used in a chemical process," as our friends at put it. This means that every physical object in the universe is made of chemicals—including our own bodies.

Second, thousands of naturally occurring chemicals cause cancer. One is acrylamide, a substance found in the non-bromated, unbleached flour used in "organic" breads. When fed to laboratory rats, it produces lethal tumors.

Third, "The dose makes the poison," as toxicologists say. Many chemicals that are dangerous in large doses are beneficial or even vital in smaller amounts. One is water (see "Death by Waterlogging" in our Piping Hot! newsletter, July 2002). Another is salt. And still others—vital to both economics and safety—are butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), which prevents cupcakes and cereals from spoiling; and nitrates, which keep lunchmeats from giving us botulism. Without them, we'd pay a lot more for food—and it would kill us more often, too.

Fourth, when manufacturers put additives in foods, they do so with detailed knowledge of the risks and benefits. They also do it under the eagle eyes of government regulators who are informed by decades of independent scientific research. We live in an open society, and the openness extends even to the things we eat.

I'm not saying the food supply is risk-free. Nothing can be risk-free. But the risks are remarkably well balanced, and that's one reason American longevity keeps rising. Life expectancy reached 77.9 years in 2004, and cancer deaths have been falling since 1990. We are healthier now than any major nation has ever been.

So, yes, food companies are putting carcinogens in our steak and chocolate and ham and cookies—but the leading cause of death these days is not cancer. It's heart disease. And the main causes of that are smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise.

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