Identifying Risk in Food Science
Identifying Risk in Food Science
The topic of food science can be quite polarizing. From synthetic vs. natural ingredients to conventional vs. organic farming, few talk about the subject from a neutral and balanced stance. What makes matters worse are the conflicts of interest on both sides. When I say conflicts of interest, I am referring to financial conflicts, both direct and indirect, as well as conflicts relating to the defense of a position individuals feel is “under attack.” Human tendency is to “shell up” and fight to maintain our stance, vilifying our adversary if our fundamental views are attacked and belittled. Navigating the debate around these subjects can be difficult and confusing. What makes matters worse is that confidential information that only a few have access to could dramatically alter peoples’ positions if they had said information. Unfortunately, being confidential in nature, the ability to give hard evidence to audiences on why they should change their positions is sometimes impossible.
I find myself in this very position. As a skeptic by nature, I was hesitant to fully accept the hard-line positions from any of the loudest voices on either side of the debate. I’ve made it a habit to routinely read articles and updates on both sides; I subscribe to some of the most nauseatingly alt-health newsletters on the internet, and I also follow many of the most hard-headed “science promoters” who look to attack everything from the other side, while peddling only part of the information, to prove their points. I’ve also gone out of my way to pick the brain of some of the senior scientific staff of many of the largest natural brands to get their opinions on the subjects their brands support — issues like sucralose and other artificial sweeteners, and genetic modification. What I have been told, in confidence, terrifies me. On the flip side, I am keenly aware of how research can be stifled by private interests. I’ve written about this at length, and this subject is a large part of the one book I am writing which is nearing completion. It makes me wonder how we can know anything at all.
I want to make a point in stating that financial interested are financial interests, even if the finances are coming from industries or companies you trust. The pursuit of food science should be in finding the best solutions to reduce potential harm, improve sustainability of our soil and water, reduce costs, especially with the developing world and lower income groups in mind, while reducing the environmental impact from transportation, packaging etc. Several years ago, Whole Foods endeavoured to rate various producers on precisely these criteria and were immediately met with heavy backlash from organic suppliers and advocates[i]. The “Responsibly Grown” program aimed to rate farmers on criteria such as land sustainability, pesticide use, packaging, recycling programs, and worker treatment. The problem? Organic was not immediately presumed to be superior; conventional farmers could be rated higher than organic farmers, if their practices were deemed to be superior. Considering organic farming allows for pesticides, and sometimes these pesticides need to be used at far higher dosages than synthetic alternatives; take for example the use of rotenone-pyrethrin, which needs to be used 7x as compared to the synthetic pesticide imidan[ii]. Rotenone is extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic life, and rotenone toxicity has been linked to the development of Parkinson’s Disease[iii]. It seems reasonable to evaluate each farm, regardless of “organic” or otherwise, on their actual methods; not branding. For organic farmers, they have a lot of stake here. They charge often 3x as much for the same produce and have carefully crafted a brand as being “better for your health.” Evidence suggesting this is not the case, especially from a strong ally like Whole Foods, could be devastating to the organic industry’s bottom line. Perhaps this is why coverage on Whole Food’s Responsibly Grown program quietly disappeared shortly after launch.
Before I dive into this, for readers, please do not send me articles from natural sites or black and white “science communicators,” as “fact” that I should educate myself on. I think for myself, evaluate all the evidence from both sides, and possess significant “off the record” evidence and statements of opinion from experts who report contrary beliefs to what their corporations hold. I’ve thought about these subjects for years and have gathered thoughts and opinions from many experts that have a wide range of views on the subjects. I did not intend to write this article, as I always felt the subject needed no less than 15,000 words. But due to the high volume of e-mails we are receiving from an ongoing series by one of our contributing authors, I wanted to take the time to break down some of the logic in how I form my views and why we are running these articles, and standing by our contributor. It will be a far cry from the 15,000-word series. However, it will hopefully elucidate some of the positions I, and others, hold that are contrary to popular natural health adherents. I will tackle a few subjects, briefly, such as artificial vs. natural sweeteners, glyphosate and other pesticides, and genetically modified (GM) foods.
Finally, regardless of how much evidence is presented, there will always remain a contingent of individuals who believe, dogmatically, that anything synthetic is inherently dangerous. There is no amount of evidence that can be provided to say otherwise. It is held as faith. A fitting quote, while intended to debate religious adherents, aptly applies to those within this dogmatic natural camp:
“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”
— Bertrand Russel
Sweeteners: Artificial vs. Natural
In my opinion, no sweetener, artificial or natural, is completely without risk. In fact, every sweetener that we, and by “we” I mean humanity, have studied has evidence it can do harm. I talk about this in my article on why we choose to use sucralose. As I allude to in the article, the evidence is mounting that stevia is as harmful to the microbiome as sucralose. For the record, all sweeteners that we have studied impact the microbiome. As this evidence mounts, natural proponents and brands have started switching to monk fruit. This switch was likely to take place anyways, as monk fruit tastes a lot better than stevia. I want to speak briefly about the difference between evidence for safety and absence of evidence for harm.
- Evidence for safety means that an ingredient has been thoroughly tested to evaluate its biological effects on humans or, at the very least, mammals such as mice. Based on the empirical evidence, it is viewed to have low toxicity and a low potential to do harm.
- Lack of evidence for harm can simply mean no studies evaluating an ingredient have taken place, or very few studies have taken place. This does not mean an ingredient is safe, it means we lack evidence either way.
As for monk fruit, the latter applies. There is no evidence it negatively impacts the microbiome because its effect on the microbiome has not been studied in living animals, with only a single recent paper in cell cultures showing no effect.[iv] Considering that all sweeteners tested have had a deleterious impact on the microbiome, it is logical to conclude monk fruit likely does, as well. Personally, I hope it doesn’t. I hope that monk fruit emerges as the safest and best alternative, as I tend to believe avoiding sweeteners is always the best option.
Even if monk fruit isn’t harmful, it still doesn’t solve the incompatibility of use inside the hydrogen tablets, for our specific manufacturing. That brings us to more philosophical questions, such as how hydrogen water has universally been shown to strongly improve the microbiome, and much more. A sweetener may slightly negate this. However, in the name of compliance, the use of that sweetener may be the reason someone uses the product, and continues to use it. A friend of mine once quipped “You could invent a beverage that cures all disease, cures aging, increases someone’s IQ, and makes them rich. But if it doesn’t taste like a soda, it won’t matter as most won’t drink it.” Of course, this isn’t true of everyone, but for a large percentage of humanity this is frighteningly accurate. I personally drink the unflavoured most of the time and the sweetened sometimes, but stand behind the use of sweeteners as they make the hydrogen water appealing to the general public, often including those that need the help, the most. Their dependence on sweet beverages has often caused their health issues, in the first place.
Behind the scenes, the various PhDs I have worked with regarding product development and formulation love sucralose. They overwhelmingly agree with me that it poses no additional harm as opposed to the natural options like stevia and monk fruit, and often state “I wish corporate allowed sucralose, it would make my job so much easier.” As I will mention later on the topic of GM ingredients, many of these food scientists have advised me that marketing defines their health and ingredient policies; not the scientists employed. Additionally, without naming names, I can say that there are numerous individuals I have sent, or continue to send, flavoured hydrogen tablets (with sucralose) for their personal use, while they vilify the ingredient through their own platform. It utterly amazes me. They’re fine taking it themselves but aren’t willing to buck the trend in the industry.
Genetic Modification in Food and Ingredients
To clarify the subject, I am going to write for these paragraphs on only the breeding technologies, not the use of pesticides. I will tackle glyphosate in the final section. These are separate debates, but are often conflated. Additionally, I am speaking solely of the technologies, and not financial interests. Some GM technologies are humanitarian efforts, and some organic crops are patented, created by “natural” breeding methods. The issue of corporate control, and biotechnology, is also often conflated, and highly misunderstood.
Genetic modification is simply a breeding technology that endeavours to favourably alter the genetic structure of an organism. First off, we have been genetically altering plants since the advent of agriculture and horticulture, for thousands of years. Without selective breeding, cross breeding plants, etc., we would not have most fruits and vegetables available on the market that we do today, even the organic ones. We do not know what we are adding or taking away to get a desired visual or organoleptic outcome using traditional breeding methods. We have utilized other breeding methods for thousands of years via selective breeding; we see this in different breeds of dogs, and also in our food supply. The photo below shows the natural evolution of corn, from wild to what is mass produced now. The majority of this change took place long before we were able to utilize modern bioengineering.
Other crops, such as kale, were originally wild forms of cabbage,[v] which we selectively bred through horticulture. This selective breeding alters the genome — and quite randomly and rapidly, at that. More recently, in the last hundred years, practices that promote mutagenesis have emerged.[vi] Mutagenesis is when the genetic information of an organism changes. We learned that exposing seeds to high heat or radiation can rapidly cause mutations. Originally, it was X-rays that were used to promote mutagenesis. In fact, this practice, as in exposing seeds to high levels of radiation, is still used today and is an accepted practice in organic farming. The most common form of radiation used to cause rapid changes are gamma rays, and X-rays are still used. Currently, no nations organic bodies have banned this practice[vii]. Radiation-induced mutagenesis is conducted with no regulatory oversight, or proof of safety, and can result in hundreds of random gene alterations. Bioengineering involves inserting or deleting specific genes, and testing the outcomes thoroughly for safety. This process can cost upwards of $1 billion and take as long as a decade. Any change comes with inherent risk. Personally, I will take the risk associated with a highly researched and evaluated change over random changes where the outcomes aren’t known.
Finally, some GM crops have been designed to serve a humanitarian purpose. Not all biotechnology is from an “evil corporate lab,” and often, these “evil corporations” are no eviller than any other large corporation — or small corporation, for that matter. We need to question everyone and everything, but dissect the base technology from the corporations and individuals we associate them with. Golden Rice[viii] was designed for starving children in Africa and South East Asia, primarily. It simply adds beta-carotene to rice to stave off blindness from vitamin A deficiency. What type of monster would possibly fight against a humanitarian mission to save starving children from going blind? The organic industry, for one, as it hurts their bottom line. Greenpeace,[ix] as well, which in my opinion is little more than a terrorist organization these days. The activists who burned down the crops even tried to spin the story, reciting in their inculcations that the farmers in the Philippines “rose up.”[x],[xi] Some even try to spin the FDA ruling that golden rice doesn't meet the criteria for a “health claim,” when vitamin A itself does not. Ignoring the fact that golden rice is not intended to improve the health of properly nourished individuals.[xii]
Then there is the Bt brinjal,[xiii] a crop designed to be pest resistant without the need of expensive herbicides and pesticides. Field trials have found it reduced pesticide use by 42% and doubled yields, allowing cheaper food to be produced and provided to the starving population in Bangladesh, with India next. Or how about how GM saved the papaya, which was set for extinction and would have caused undue hardship to farmers in Hawaii, Thailand, etc.?[xiv],[xv] Who could be against the Arctic apple?[xvi],[xvii] Simply an apple developed to cut down on food waste, as the enzyme for 'browning' has been removed. We throw away shocking amounts of edible food in North America. The arctic apple is a project to stop that very food waste, to conserve land and resources, and feed more people off of less. The organic industry is opposed to all of this, of course, as they oppose anything GM, no matter what the purpose.[xviii],[xix]
Genetic modification of food sources is one thing; GM labeling is another. Many ingredients that do not contain genes are labeled ‘non-GMO.’ What the marketers are really saying is that these ingredients come from a source that was non-GMO (or, in cases such as “non-GMO water, they are just trying to exploit a marketing trend). This is completely irrelevant, unless you believe in homeopathy (you shouldn’t). Once an ingredient is extracted, provided the purity is consistent, the properties are identical. It is completely irrelevant, for instance, whether dextrose is extracted from GM corn, non-GMO corn, or “organic tapioca.” At the end of the day, it is just dextrose, and provided the purity remains equivalent, the ingredient is identical.
I know two separate PhDs that work(ed) for two of the largest natural brands in the USA. Both were in charge of product development. Both have extensive education on bioengineering foods; one did the work for his PhD, another for their post-doctoral research. Both are, or were, forced to hold the corporate position that GMs were unnecessarily harmful, which they both privately disagree with, vehemently so. At one of these companies, it has been advised to me by other staff members that their marketing team and founder/CEO will dictate the content they put out through incredibly disingenuous ways. Basically, an article will be requested with the tone and conclusions predefined. If a staff writer opposes and claims the evidence does not support this position, or there are literally no references in the scientific literature to suggest this, the founder advises them to “add in a reference that looks relevant. Nobody reads the references anyways.”
To digress, I am intimately familiar with other instances of complete messaging fraud from within the natural industry; one major website outsources their writing overseas, giving predetermined topics and conclusions, and then edits internally and posts, using the writers as “ghost writers” and passing it off as the work of their influential figure. Another major influencer within this industry had admitted that they do not believe in “x or y health scare,” but will talk about it, as it is “trending.” This is an individual who talks about the benefits of evolutionary adaptations, has promoted the paleo diet, etc., while privately maintaining faith as a young earth creationist. Finally, I am intimately aware of the practices of a large company within the natural and biohacking industry that conducts significant research. However, as per their former staff, they have quashed far more research that “wasn’t favourable” than they have published. These are the exact type of practices that natural industry proponents charge Big Pharma for. The truth is, everyone has a mortgage. Intellectual corruption is rampant in every sector, at every turn.
I will leave a parting comment that I placed in response to one commenter who stated they grow their own food, on Arianna’s article last week.
“I think Arianna is pointing out that organic farming, as in commercial operations, is allowed to use toxic pesticides so long as they are “natural chemicals.” Often these chemicals are more toxic than the pesticides used in conventional farming.
There is inherent potential harm from any pesticide use. Growing your own food is a great solution for you. My mom and grandma do the same, and my wife and I are moving to an acreage we just purchased, and I plan to plant some foods and herbs, as well. That said, home gardens cannot solve food insecurities, or feed our growing planet. Home gardens typically cannot even feed a single household. It isn’t a complete solution.
Knowing the misrepresentations made by the organic industry can help consumers save their hard-earned money. This is not to say that all farming practices are good; it is saying that organic practices are equally bad, or in some cases, worse.”
One of my biggest questions for organic farming advocates is: “what is your solution to feed the planet?”. Organic farming is incapable of feeding our current population. Do the hard-line organic farming proponents suggest a large percentage of the world starves to death? Specifically those who cannot afford organic food? What is the end game? Shouldn’t we be striving for solutions that both reduce pesticides, improve environmental impacts AND are capable of feeding the planet?
Glyphosate use is one of the most vilified practices there is today, and while concerns are completely logical, the level of claims of harm made against the pesticide is nothing short of hysterical. First off, let’s clarify some points regarding glyophosate:
- It has been off patent for two decades:
“It was discovered to be an herbicide by Monsanto chemist John E. Franz in 1970. Monsanto brought it to market for agricultural use in 1974 under the trade name Roundup. Monsanto's last commercially relevant United States patent expired in 2000.”[xx]
- It is used in conventional farming, and is not one in the same with GM crops. Some GM crops use glyphosate, some do not. Some non-GM crops use glyphosate, some do not.
Second, there are some public researchers who have published work on the potential harm of glyphosate. However, a freedom of information act request has divulged their true opinions in regard to outright bans, and in regards to their most fervent supporters.
While the majority of their dialogue is consistent with the science they have published, Chuck Benbrook admits privately that a ban on glyphosate would be a “disaster,” as it would mean we would have to rely on more hazardous and toxic alternatives. The various researchers also mock their supporters, calling the NGOs that finance them and the influencers that support their work “bat-shit crazy,” “lunatics,” and zealots — people such as Stephanie Seneff, Zen Honeycutt, and others.
One comment from Dr. Robin Mesnage:
“A few days ago, I sent an email to the European deputy hosting the event to warn him that Stephanie Seneff is a seam (I know this is not really a good practice) and in the end he replied by inviting me!”
Dr. Michael Hansen replied with:
“That's great; you'll do a fantastic job. Looks like our side will have a strong showing, except for the first two presentations showcasing the nuttiness of Seneff and those totally misleading correlation graphs, originally developed by Nancy Swanson. At least your presentation and those from IARC and PAN will be excellent science.”
Followed by another anti-glyphosate researcher replying:
“Samsel and Seneff are simply not credible. Way over the top. This meeting will do more harm than good. I strongly encourage Phil not to join. If I were you, Laura, I would be tempted to respond by saying "I would never appear in a meeting with Seneff and Samsel." But it's probably best simply not to respond.”
If you want to know what the leading researchers publishing work on the harm glyphosate may cause, read the whole email exchange here:
As for Stephanie Seneff, she is in the new breed of quacks I warned about in part 5 of my series on critical thinking in health science.
Esoteric Gish Gallop
This leads me to the most dangerous trait that I see many “alt med” skeptics develop, and that is the habit of combining logical leaps with esoteric, or downright fraudulent, subjects. This trait truly defines “new pseudoscience.” Many of the most influential figures in alt med have begun leaning on “experts” who specialize in esoteric areas that often have no firm evidence or understanding, as well as experts who hold widely criticized and controversial views that differ dramatically from their peers.
I have watched as several conmen, or perhaps some are just dangerous idiots, have woven together esoteric positions, beliefs, and limited research into grand theories. This is a form of Gish gallop, which is presenting numerous shaky arguments to overwhelm critics rather than forming one solid argument, made worse by how esoteric some of the points are. Many of these fringe subjects are so devoid of real expertise that there is no one to roundly dismiss what is being stated. An expert here or there may be tempted to criticize the section concerning their own area, but also may not, as they will perhaps be dissuaded by the lack of knowledge they have in the other areas.
This technique gives the illusion to many individuals that these hucksters, or idiots, are geniuses, bordering on magicians, for their ability to piece together all of this “fascinating” information. Of course, when numerous parts encompassing the hypotheses are unknown, as the hypotheses themselves, it renders the entire thought to be little more than imagination.
I am privy to some of Stephanie’s arguments, as she has been looped into big email threads I have been part of, due to mutual friends. In a debate regarding genetic engineering, Stephanie’s canned response was sent over.
Dr. Seneff’s email reads as follows:
"Glyphosate fits PERFECTLY into the pocket where glycine needs to fit. Glyphosate's nitrogen atom must necessarily protrude outside the pocket in the tRNA synthetase because it needs to be free to react with the tail of the growing peptide chain, hooking onto the COOH group of the preceding amino acid.
All that the synthetase has to assure for a match is that there is no side chain on the carbon atom. Glyphosate fits the bill perfectly.
I would ask back to those who doubt this if they can explain all the observations from various papers on EPSP synthase how glyphosate is disrupting it if not by substituting for the second glycine residue in the highly conserved GNAG sequence at the site where PEP binds?
The A (alanine) next door to the second G (glycine) is the second smallest amino acid, allowing plenty of room for the extra methylphosphonyl group bound to the nitrogen atom of glyphosate.
I'd like them to explain why a new design of the pocket can be arranged by tweaking a couple of amino acids around the pocket, such that PEP still fits perfectly, and glyphosate, which allegedly works through substrate substitution, is completely unable to block it?
Mutations that lose the conserved glycine residue at the PEP binding site have devastating and categorical effects on glyphosate but much weaker effects on PEP.
I would appreciate it if they would explain this statement in the attached paper BY MONSANTO RESEARCHERS:
"For example, replacing the conserved glycine-101 with alanine (G101A) in petunia EPSPS weakens the Km(app) for PEP by 40-fold, reduces kcat by 2-fold, but perturbs glyphosate inhibition by nearly 5000 fold."
Sikorski JA, Gruys KJ. Understanding glyphosate’s molecular mode of action with EPSP synthase: Evidence favoring an allosteric inhibitor model. Acc Chem Res 1997; 30(1): 2-8. (attached)
People should stop getting hung up on the idea that it absolutely can't happen, and instead look at the predicted consequences if you assume that it does happen. This approach makes it very easy to see how glyphosate could be causing ALL of these diseases that are going up at an alarming rate in any society that adopts a Western diet.
Here's what Monsanto researchers wrote in an unpublished study that Anthony Samsel has on file:
“Proteinase K hydrolyses proteins to amino acids and small oligopeptides, suggesting that a significant portion of the 14C activity residing in the bluegill sunfish tissue was tightly associated with or incorporated into protein.”
This is with reference to bluegill sunfish exposed to 14C-labelled glyphosate. They recovered much more of the radioactivity found in the tissues by subjecting the tissue sample to proteolysis with proteinase K.
Those who oppose this idea are not correct in thinking that protein synthesis is perfect. Many errors are made all the time, but most of them are harmless. He's right that errorful versions are detected to be defective and broken apart to be reassembled if need be. That's why a study on glyphosate exposure to the rhizosphere showed upregulation of proteins involved in both protein synthesis and protein degradation. (paper attached)
Feel free to forward this message to anyone you are engaged in conversation with."
A highly respected biochemist I won’t name due to confidential conversations, but who I completely trust responded.
The response reads as follows:
“In order to be incorporated into a protein, the glyphosate molecule would have to be loaded on to the specific glycine tRNA by the specific glycine tRNA synthetase enzyme. This process is highly specific to make sure the right amino acids are attached. This is why each amino acid has their OWN tRNA molecule, AND synthetase enzyme. The process is two steps, and is very effective at preventing the wrong amino acid from being added. For example, valine and isoleucine only differ by one carbon, but the charge, shape, polarity, hydrophobicity, etc. are nearly the same. However, a mistake in 1 of 40k times. If a mistake does occur, then the protein is often recognized as abnormal, which results in its ubiquitination and degradation (doesn't get incorporated into tissues). The addition of a large highly charged phosphate molecule would ensure that no tRNA could recognize glyphosate as glycine, and it would never fit in the “pocket” of the tRNA synthetase to attach the glyphosate molecule. It is orders of magnitude more likely that alanine would replace glycine since those structures are nearly the same, but that does not happen. There are many compounds, both natural and chemically produced, that I can think of that have structures less different between glycine and glyphosate, and they are not incorporated into proteins. It just does not happen.--and you know know, if it did happen, it would be extremely easy to test and prove, which obviously she hasn't done in the past ≈5-7 yrs since the inception of her idea.
Glyphosate could be toxic for other reasons (e.g., microbiome, hormonal changes, etc.).”
Stephanie did not engage, having sent her response in private after being looped in, and those we were engaging with stated they would solicit her response. She didn’t and stopped being included in the emails, so this email was sent in the chain:
“Did you forward my response to Stephanie? My arguments against her are not new to her. She has been confronted by these same verities for many years by both anti- and pro- glyphosate scientists. She has had many years to try and address them yet she can only resort to correlational studies, hypothetical conjecture, and extrapolations.
The questions she poses as evidence for glyphosate behaving as an analog could be answered more easily by other mechanisms. At this point, there is no reason to debate the possibility with her because there is no evidence to even discuss it. You can always find "reasons" to believe or disbelieve. She is engaging in strong confirmation bias of only looking to "prove" her hypothesis (aka "pseudoscience"). In contrast, real science seeks to "disprove" a hypothesis.”
The point in all of this being that glyphosate may cause harm, and likely does, but so do the alternatives. There is no evidence it is more harmful than the pesticides used in organic farming, and in fact, some used in organic farming are significantly more toxic. Just as Monsanto has financial motivations to cover up evidence for harm, the largest proponents pushing the narratives of extreme harm stand to gain financially, and stand to be hurt if they need to retract their positions.
The truth is, no one can be trusted. No matter how noble our intentions are, we all act emotionally, then work to justify our emotions. We all proceed based on whatever bias we entered into a new scenario with. Eventually, conflicts of interest can corrupt us all. This is precisely why we need to question everyone, and everything — especially our own actions and beliefs.