If you’ve been on Facebook in the last week, you may have come across this graphic first posted on the quack nutritional blog Food Babe.
It preaches the dangers of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL), an annual favourite that has recently gained a cult-like following in North America, similar to the subscribers of Food Babe.
The graphic suggests that the PSL is full of toxic chemicals, GMO milk, and (gasp!) no real pumpkin.
I’ll try to make this quick and painless.
Vani Hari, better known as the Food Babe, has become famous in her crusade of pseudo science against large food corporations across America. Her educational background is in computer science, which is puzzling, since she lacks fundamental logic and reasoning skills. If you examine her blog or Facebook page, it is a clutter of poorly researched articles whose sources never include a proper scientific study. In addition to her articles, she also frequently recommends new products to her subscribers. These companies are paying her to sell their products to her brainwashed readers, who believe that buying these “natural” or “organic” products is the only way they can achieve nutritional salvation. I’ve already written in excess on why Hari operates the way she does, so now I’ll get on to debunking her dubious claims.
Before I begin, I’d like to point out that I did the research for this article in 5 minutes using nothing more than Google Scholar. It’s just that easy to disprove essentially every single one of her claims.
Claim 1) the PSL is made with Caramel Colour Level IV, which is made with ammonia and is also a carcinogen.
Google Search Used: “Caramel Colour Level IV Toxicity”
Study used: MacKenzie, K. M., et al. “Toxicity and carcinogenicity studies of Caramel Colour IV in F344 rats and B6C3F-1 mice.” Food and chemical toxicology30.5 (1992): 431-443.
What science and logic says: “Caramel Colour IV, a type of caramel colour used in the manufacture of cola soft drinks, was evaluated for subchronic and chronic toxicity in rats, and carcinogenicity in Fischer-344 (F344) rats and B6C3F1 mice. There were no treatment-related alterations in haematological variables or treatment-related differences in survival or in the incidence of benign or malignant tumours among treated and control groups and no toxicologically important pathological findings. On the basis of these studies, Caramel Colour IV was not toxic or carcinogenic in F344 rats or B6C3F1 mice. The highest dose level tested in the long-term studies (10 g/kg) was considered to be the no-observed-adverse-effect level (NOAEL).”
In a nutshell, Caramel Colour Level IV is not toxic in doses regularly consumed by humans, or in this case, rats and mice. Anything can be toxic if you ingest too much of it, even water, so without listing an exact threshold on her graphic, Food Babe leaves her 1st argument with a huge, gaping hole.
Claim 2) Absolutely no pumpkin ingredients
Umm, ok? Have you ever tried to mix real pumpkin into a drink? Not exactly the most diffusion-friendly substance on the planet. There is no harm to anyone mentioned here, other than it reduces the chance of having nasty pumpkin residue at the bottom of the drink. Claim 2 is an empty argument, so I’ll just move on and stop wasting time.
Claim 3) Made with “Monsanto Milk” or Soy Milk that contains Carrageenan.
I won’t even touch “Monsanto Milk”, because there is still no evidence that GMOs are harmful. We have all been consuming GMO corn for decades and there has yet to be an outbreak of cancer or other disease directly associated with GMO crops, if any even exist.
Soy Milk and Carrageenan was a different story, at least at first. When you Google “carrageenan”, you arrive at this study:
Di Rosa, M_, J. P. Giroud, and D. A. Willoughby. “Studies of the mediators of the acute inflammatory response induced in rats in different sites by carrageenan and turpentine.” The Journal of pathology 104.1 (1971): 15-29.
The problem with this study, aside from the fact that it’s over 40 years old, is the fact that this study used degraded carrageenan, which is not deemed safe for human consumption, and is not used as a food additive. Additionally, this study applied a dose of carregeenan to rats that would never approved for a food product consumed by humans.
This study used undegraded carrageenan, and almost no inflammatory responses were recorded.
Weiner, Myra L., et al. “A 90-day dietary study on kappa carrageenan with emphasis on the gastrointestinal tract.” Food and chemical toxicology 45.1 (2007): 98-106.
Claim 4) Toxic dose of sugar
Pretty critical to the taste of the beverage. Sugars are no different whether they are natural, refined, or the continuously lambasted high fructose corn syrup that Food Babe and her followers love to hate. The fact is, your body cannot tell the difference between a sugar molecule whether it’s natural or not. Everything is processed the same within your body. Should you work to consume less sugar? Sure, but knowing that a PSL contains that amount of sugar hardly makes it toxic; just abstain from sugary foods for the rest of your day to ensure you’re not breaching the sugar intake limit for a healthy diet. This claim is true, but there’s nothing hidden here: you should know that what you’re drinking is fairly sugary.
Claim 5) Ambiguous Natural Flavours that can be made from anything on earth.
Anything on earth? Does that include pumpkins?
There is no argument here, no facts, no logic. Next.
Claim 6) Artificial Flavours made from substances like petroleum
Where is the list of substances? At any rate, many artificial substances are made from petroleum. Just because something is toxic in one state doesn’t mean it’s toxic in all states. It’s like that old argument that Cheez Whiz is one ingredient away from being chemically plastic. That doesn’t matter; chemistry is a binary science. Something either is or it isn’t. How “close” a substance is to another is no indication of its relative toxicity to humans. If we’re going by that logic, I guess we should all stop drinking water, too. Water is only 1 oxygen molecule away from becoming Hydrogen Peroxide, which is a toxic substance. Chewing gum is made from petroleum, but you won’t see millions of people dropping dead after they unwrap a stick of Dubble Bubble.
Failed understanding of how food chemistry works. Next.
Claim 7) Preservatives and sulfites that can cause allergic reactions.
Allergy science is incredibly complicated because the human body is as well. There may be some people who have an allergic reaction to a PSL, but these are outliers in the data. Since these allergies are not common enough to warrant a recipe change, why would Starbucks change anything? People are just as allergic (if not more so) to natural things as they are to artificial, so , yet again, there is no argument here.
Claim 8) Possible Pesticide Residue from using non-organic coffee beans.
This one actually made me laugh. It’s a classic case of greenwashing to think that everything organic is wholesome, better for you, and will give you superpowers over everyone else who can’t afford to purchase all organic food. Organic foods are still treated with pesticides. Read the FDA’s requirements and policies for certified organic foods. Nowhere on there is there a rule that states that organic food is not allowed to be treated with pesticides. In fact, because organic pesticides are less effective than traditional ones, they often have to be sprayed more to have the same efficacy level. Organic is not better than traditional. It’s a placebo effect brought on by a great marketing scheme by food producers to increase profit margins on food.
Claim 9) Contains condensed conventional milk, NOT VEGAN even with soy milk options.
Poor grammar aside, there is also a lot of glaring problems with her last point. No reputable study anywhere has concluded that a vegan diet is better than a normal, balanced diet.
“But I’ve read the China Study and it proves that a vegan diet is healthiest!” you say. You may come across the book through one of Tim Ferriss’ works or may have in fact read the book itself. The fact is, this study was hack science at best and has since been ripped to shreds by the scientific community. If Dr. Oz and Oprah are recommending it, you can be sure that it’s quack science. The fact that Starbucks doesn’t offer a vegan dairy option is a non-issue, unless you’re a vegan. Even then, the beverage is served with whipped cream, so you probably shouldn’t be getting it anyway.
We have a taste for the miraculous and the new, but these “magic bean” cures are always not what they appear. It’s no wonder that they’re only advertised on daytime TV to the demographic that is the least educated. And it’s awful: these quack prophets are preying on the weak-minded and the naive on this continent.
Next week I’ll choose another one of Food Babe’s posts in rip it to shreds in 30 minutes or less. Seriously, it’s just that easy. Give it a try sometime.