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Thursday, October 11, 2012

False equivalences

I came across this article about people in Tanzania getting chemical-free water. The term bugs me greatly - after all, water itself is a chemical, fearsome in its guise as the pervasive dihydrogen monoxide.  But if you think that is is some quirk of reporting in Africa, behold: "carbon free sugar".

You get these blanket terms thrown around: Chemicals. Preservatives. Pesticides. Antibiotics. Hormones. Causes cancer. And people embrace this as sufficient justification to avoid or condemn certain foods or food practices without breaking down the facts.

Aside from considering that toxicity depends on amount and circumstance, one should not fall into the trap of considering all substances of a class equivalent. It's a logical fallacy, one that can be used to drum up an emotional response to swamp out the intelligent evaluation. Take the term pesticide. The key here is understanding that one person's pest is another person's valued commodity (huilacoche, for example - AKA corn smut). So, not all pesticides are equivalent, and many are virtually inert to human physiology.

I take particular exception to the idea of "hormone-free" milk. First of all, hormones are signaling molecules, and are regarded as such depending on the biological context. For example, ethylene is a plant hormone, but is also a simple hydrocarbon. Milk is a complex substance that includes hormonal products from the mammary glands - so there is really is, technically speaking, no such thing as hormone-free milk. The hormone rBST (a specific one) can be injected into cows to increase production, but resulting milk is not appreciably different in composition. The advertising serves to propagate this image that the milk itself has become dangerous, when it is no different. Other than the fact that it costs less due to the increased production.

Addendum: one other catchall word: "Proteins". Used as a politically catchall term for - well - meat. And it's requisite substitutes for those who must indulge in a meat-centric tradition without actually eating meat. Aside from being scientifically inaccurate - after all, the meat portion isn't the only one providing protein - it reinforces the stereotype that this "meat centric" meal set up is the one valid way a meal is constructed. Not all proteins are equivalent, either. Take, for example, hair or feathers, which are primarily composed of the protein keratin. That humans will find almost completely indigestible.

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