Food Myths and Truths: A Handy Guide

By Mike Howard

60-db an apple a day.jpgEat fish – it’s full of omega-3’s… wait don’t – it contains PCB’s and mercury. Drink milk – you need the calcium… don’t drink milk, it causes prostate cancer. Eat soy… actually don’t. Drink coffee… stop drinking coffee…

Nutrition is a deeply confusing topic. Joe Schwarcz, PhD is hoping to change that.

An Apple a Day: The Myths, Misconceptions and Truths About the Foods We Eat, is a comprehensive and refreshingly evenhanded look at what we know, what we think we know, what we don’t know and how we can apply what we do know to our nutritional choices. Instead of giving dietary plans, Schwarcz teaches us how to think about nutrition and does so in a thoughtful, humorous and engaging manner.
The book is broken down into 4 parts:

  1. Naturally occurring substances in our food supply
  2. Manipulating our food Supply
  3. Contaminants in our food supply
  4. Tough to swallow (a look at fads and shaky science)

Here are some nuggets from the first part of the book;

‘It is folly to think that one can introduce something as complicated as food into something as complex as the human body and make easy predictions about the outcome.” – Joe Schwarcz

  • “Toxic chemical” is a meaningless term unless placed in its proper context. Apples contain acetone, isopropanol and cyanide. It’s the dose that counts.
  • Polyphenol content in the diet is inversely associated with death from heart disease. Major sources in the diet are apples, tea and onions. The real key to antioxidant intake is variety
  • An Italian study showed that higher pizza consumption was associated with lower risk of heart attacks. The tomato sauce appeared to be the link. After studying tomato products and lycopene, it appears that it is processed tomatoes that are responsible for the health effects – not the lycopene itself.
  • Cranberries help ward off urinary tract infections however it is not due to the acidity or anti-bacterial effect. It is the prevention of bacteria sticking to the lining of the urinary tract – which is thought to be because of the trimeric procyanidins. Duh!
  • Blueberries have powerful antioxidant effects – possibly due to the anthocyanins and pterostilbenes found in the little blue wonders. A study showed that young rats could balance on a narrow beam for 13 seconds. When the rats reached old age, it dropped to 5 seconds. The old rats fed blueberry extract, however were able to stay on an average of 11 seconds.
  • Compounds found in orange peels (polymethoxylated flavones – PMF’s) have been shown to exhibit a powerful cholesterol-lowering effect (the study had only 10 subjects, however). Commercial concoctions are being formulated and tested. These PMF’s also exhibit qualities similar to tamoxifen – an anti-cancer drug. More research needed.
  • Acai berries – turned into expensive commercial juices, claim to have more antioxidants than any other fruit. What matters though, is total antioxidant intake and this appears to be best served by consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables. Antioxidant capacity is tested in a lab dish – which may or may not carry over to human benefit.
  • There is a strong inverse relationship between fish consumption and depression – with some countries exhibiting 60 times the amount of depression as others. Ditto with cognitive impairment, ADD, dyslexia and hyperactivity
  • Studies on fish consumption and heart health have been very promising and yet surprisingly mixed. 2-3 servings of fatty, cold water fish (salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel) is a good idea. Enough to induce benefits and not enough to worry about mercury and PCB’s
  • Flaxseeds contain lignans, which have been shown to lower breast cancer risk. Flax also binds to bile acids in the gut – forcing them to make more. Diabetics have experienced a 30% drop in blood glucose with 50g of flaxseeds.
  • Olive oil contains oleocanthol, an anti-inflammatory substance with pharmacological activity similar to that of ibuprofen. Phenols found in extra virgin olive oil reduce the damage to DNA in colorectal cells.
  • In addition to fiber, whole grains contain vitamins, mineral and antioxidants. They also provide lignans (anti-cancer effects) and rutin – which can reduce the risk of blood clots.
  • Beta-glucan found in oats prevents cholesterol from being oxidized, lowers blood pressure and helps control blood sugar levels
  • In the Nurses Health Study, women who consumed beans and lentils twice per week were about 25% less likely to develop breast cancer than those who ate them less than once a month. This may be due to the inositol pentakisphosphate found in beans, lentils, peas, wheat bran and nuts that has an effect similar to the drug cisplatin – a drug commonly used to treat ovarian cancer
  • Look for gas-free beans in the grocery stores soon. Adding lactobacillus species before cooking can reduce gas-producing carbohydrates by 90% without altering nutritional value.
  • Breast cancer rates in the former East Germany were much lower than those in West Germany. The possible difference? Cabbage consumption was much higher in East Germany.
  • Higher intakes of foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin such as spinach, corn and collard greens are associated with a substantially lowered risk of macular degeneration
  • Turmeric, the yellow spice used to add flavour to dishes has a powerful anti-inflammatory effect. More specifically, curcumin – a component of turmeric inhibits the action of cyclooxygenase-2 enzyme (COX-2) which catalyzes inflammation
  • Curcumin may also be effective in preventing colon cancer
  • The Health Professionals Follow-up study (45,000 men) found that total coffee intake was not associated with heart disease or stroke even when consumption exceeded 4 cups per day. Coffee consumption appears to decrease the risk of Parkinson’s disease and type II diabetes
  • Resveratrol found in red wine has been shown to simulate the positive effects associated with reducing calories by 30%. French paradox? Mais Non! They eat less than Americans do. Comparisons of restaurants have shown that American restaurants portions are 25-72% larger than that of comparable French restaurants. American candy bars are 41% larger and hot dogs are 63% larger. The average French person takes longer to eat meals. The average American spends an hour eating per day while the average French spends 100 minutes.
  • Celiac disease (gluten allergy) is strongly associated with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is much more common than we may think.
  • Cinnamon has been shown to reduce blood sugar levels by as much as 30% – with only a quarter tablespoon a day. In this study, it also lowered LDL cholesterol and triglycerides
  • Homocysteine appears to signal the approach of heart disease, but doesn’t cause it. Levels can be lowered with folic acid, vitamin B-6 and vitamin B-12 – but this didn’t effect heart disease when put through clinical trials. Lowering homocysteine does however appear to lower risk of colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease but appears not to have an effect on cognitive performance in the elderly. Uncooked spinach is a great source of folate
  • While high doses of vitamin E don’t appear to reduce the risk of heart disease or cancer but it appears to ward off Parkinson’s disease and cold sores.
  • Vitamin D offers significant protection from breast cancer. Doses need to be at about 1000 IU’s for protection – supplementing is usually necessary to achieve this. Subjects from a multitude of studies who took vitamin D were less likely to die of ANY cause than those who did not (by 7%).

Other heated topics discussed in the book:

  • Milk and whether or not it does the body good
  • Why the fear of MSG and artificial sweeteners and is largely irrational
  • The science and technology behind artificial colours and flavours and whether or not we need to worry about them
  • An in depth look at food preservation techniques and which ones we need to be concerned about
  • A look at food fortification and its impact on our health
  • A look at possible food contaminants and substances in our foods (dioxins, PCB’s, antibiotics, hormones)
  • The truth behind claims of super juices, supplements, Kosher foods and detox diets

For me it is nice to know there are books available that teach people how to think about nutrition and food amongst the countless that prescribe diets and preach single-minded messages. An Apple a Day is a very scintilating read for those interested in digging a little deeper into the complex interplay between food and health. It is rich with science, straightforwardness and impartiality and manages to boil down complex topics into easy-to-understand take home messages.

If you’re interested in the bottom-line, user-friendly guidelines and black-and-white suggestions, you may find the book a little too drawn out. On the other hand, if you are looking to expand your basic undertanding of nutrition and navigate through food contoversies, I think this book is of good value.


  1. Stan Sweaney

    Its ironic that the old 60s granola culture which touted the goodness of whole grains while condeming meat consumption still exists. I’m sure this is based partly on advertizing by big agriculture as well as spiritual choice. Sometimes in order for a light to come on in ones life, a major health concern has to emerge-one that is directly related to the consumption of grains.When you look at all aspects of the science behind the evolution of homo sapiens,the hunting and gathering lifestyle,the picture begins to emerge. Unfortunatly it takes a health crisis for many to begin to see the light. Former vegetarian.

  2. Supplements Canada

    Eat your fruits and vegetables. If everyone in North America met the daily minimum requirements for both, I think we would see our disease rates improve quite a bit.

  3. sdfg

    i just want to test

  4. SueK24

    I agree on the no grain diet winning over the whole grain. I’ve been eating the Zone diet for over 13 years, with very little grain. The extent of the grain I eat now is little bit of steel cut oatmeal, and the ocassional sampling of something, like on a special ocassion. I lost 100 pounds over the first two years of greatly reducing grain with the Zone diet, and have keep it off ever since. I feel great, and am in excellent health according to my annual blood tests.

  5. None Given

    Whole grain pitted against refined seems to win every time. I’m still waiting to see the contest between whole grain and no grain, every study of whole grain has compared them to refined grain. From the way I feel after greatly reducing my intake of all grain products I think a no grain diet would win hands down.

  6. Supplements

    I absolutely love books such as this one. They really put all the “spins” the media does on all types of news stories that involve the wellness industry. People really have to be careful to how they interpret what they hear from traditional media as it can be absolutely correct or absolutely false.

  7. soozeequeue

    Thanks – that’s funny, because I do tutor adult students who often either have a learning difficulty, or who have English as a second language…
    And I always ask them, if I am confused by what they wrote, “How would you say that aloud?” And when they tell me, I say, “Aha! Write it that way instead!”

    Sometimes when we write things we make them more complicated than when we say them because, I think, we believe it makes us sound smarter — not true!!

    Anyhow – back to food –

  8. Spectra

    There’s no such thing as unprocessed grain in the human diet? What about wild rice? It’s a grass and to eat it, all you have to do is pick it and smack it around to get the grains off. Then you cook it. No grinding, bleaching, etc. required. I’m betting a lot of cultures ate rice for centuries because it didn’t require processing. Of course, now that it’s cultivated, people eat way more of it than they probably used to.

  9. Jade

    I totally agree.

    And also, Just take it as compliment..
    I enjoy reading your comment, Soozeequeue. Your way of expressing idea is ‘unique’, yet not difficult to follow. (English is not my mother tongue). I wish I had had you being my English writing teacher.

  10. Mike H.

    I think the general ide there is sensible, Scott. Michael Pollan outlines this concept brilliantly in “Defense of Food”. The book from which the review is based repeats that same message often. Food scientists cannot possibly isolate healthy pieces of whole foods because there are too many dynamic and complementary compounds.

  11. Mike H.


    I think most people will do just fine consuming a few daily servings of whole grains. They contribute more than they would ever take away in terms of nutrients. If you have human studies showing substantial loss of minerals due to moderate whole grain consumption, I’d be interested. I’m only aksing because I’ve not seen anything convincing in the literature. I’m aware of phytates in grains, legumes, etc and their potential to reduce absorption of minerals, however making blanket statements on their use in the human diet may be a little unwarranted.

    A varied and balanced diet that includes whole grains would not likely have any negative impact on overall health. Even within the realm of grain consumption there are a host of factors that would impact the nutritional quality. Genotype, whole or abraded kernels, growing conditions, soil quality, etc.

    Some people find a more paleo-centered diet works best for them, but to say that everyone, all the time should eat this way is not realistic in my opinion. I’m glad you’ve found something that works for you.

  12. Mike H.

    I agree with spectra. I think if you stick with the minimally processed, whole grains – you’ll be fine. Whole grains will contribute much more than they will take away in terms of nutrients and phytochemicals. And if you are really worried about phytates, soak them like sadie suggested.

    Scott and Mike bring up interesting arguments, but I don’t think there’s much in the way of evidence suggesting that whole grains carry negative health consequences. Gluten allergies, gut irritation etc. is a possibility in some people and those people would be best served to cut down or not eat them at all. I think the Mediterranean way of eating/living is every bit as good as any other dietary plan out there – and is probably more sustainable over the long term.

    It would be great to see a study that showed people who eat the majority of their carbs from whole grains suffer any of the same problems as those who eat mostly refined grains (assuming vegetable and fruit consumption is adequate).

  13. Scott Kustes - Modern Forager

    Actually he’s quite the old man. Also notice that he didn’t say “No carbs”. He said “Watch the grains” and I agree with him. Grains have far too many detriments to be of value. Trust me that if you ditch the grains and replace them with equivalent carbs from fruits and vegetables, your health will improve markedly.

    When you look at hunter-gatherer populations, there are groups that thrive on low-carb and groups that thrive on low-fat. One thing you see though is a lack of processed foods and generally a lack of grains as well because THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN UNPROCESSED GRAIN IN THE HUMAN DIET. Grains are undigestible in their natural state and, without heavy machinery, the processing to render them edible requires more calories than are found in the grains. Hunter-gatherer populations get their carbs from roots, fruits, leaves, and berries, the same places that I recommend getting your carbs from because they can be eaten in their natural state.

    People love to setup a straw man whereby when you say “ditch the bread and pasta,” they say “see how ridiculous this guy is? He wants us to ditch all carbs.” Just an FYI…fruits and vegetables are carbs and even Atkins has copious quantities of vegetables in his diet. There’s another straw man. The reality is that people are addicted to the damage done to their bodies by grains, yes even whole grains, and come up with any justification to continue including them. Just remember one thing…a Paleo Diet with no grains has topped the Mediterranean Diet, the darling of the media with its whole grains, in clinical trials.

    Scott Kustes

  14. Spectra

    I think people definitely overthink their diet…don’t eat tomatoes, wait, now tomatoes are healthy. It’s a TOMATO, people have been eating them for a long time and getting many benefits from it. I find that my diet, which is just basically a diet rich in fruits, veggies, lean protein, whole grains, and low in processed foods, etc. has been found to have a lot of benefits. To me, it’s kind of “Well, duh!” I think this book would be really interesting to read and get the scoop on what’s true and what isn’t.

  15. soozeequeue

    Last time I checked, fruits, vegetables, and brownies were carbohydrates. All of these are essential to good health.

    Ok, I just snuck the brownies in there to see if you were paying attention. They are of course only essential to good mental health.

  16. Spectra

    I eat a lot of whole grains and I think the key is to eat grains that aren’t processed (ie, the way they would have been consumed back before processing was invented). Brown rice, quinoa, barley, millet, etc., are all full of B-vitamins and are a good source of fiber. Bran (a by-product of processing) and white flour and semolina are not definitely as good for you as REAL whole grains.

    I do think most experts agree that high fructose corn syrup and refined sucrose are not the ideal way to consume sugars…our bodies handle sugar better if we get it in the form of fruit or dairy or other natural forms. Fructose in fruit is diluted with a lot of water and fiber, so it doesn’t spike your blood sugar as much as say, fruit juice would.

  17. soozeequeue

    Ok, I’ll eat everything, it might be good for me. No wait, I’ll eat nothing, it might be bad for me. No wait, the stress of wondering will raise my blood pressure and kill me even sooner.

    I think I’ll just relax and go with my instinct about what is good for me or not – and smell the roses like Laura says.

  18. Sadie

    Soaking, sprouting and leavening solves many of the problems associated with the consumption of whole grains.

  19. Maria

    People these days way over think their diet. It’s become an obsession. Instead of cutting one’s own yard we go to the gym and hire someone to cut the grass. Instead of digging that landscape hole ourselves we take a jog and hire someone to do it…Instead of working, working ourselves we lift weights and hire someone else to do the get the picture.

    Americans are spoiled, fat and lazy.

  20. Maria

    You must be a youngster. The whole NO CARB thing has come and gone more times than you probably are old.

    No foods are bad for you when eaten in moderation. Do you ever drink an alcoholic beverage? or eat sweet potatoes? drink fruit juice? eat juice? Oh my, you’ve broken the carnal rule of NO CARBS.

    The Good Lord said bless it and eat it.

  21. Mike OD - IF Life

    Why are whole grains good? Gluten…gut allergen. Bran fiber…gut irritant, malabsorption of minerals? That’s one of the biggest myths out there….whole grain, must be healthy. Ummmm…No. Just a way for manufacturers to sell imitation (processed) foods as “healthy”. No…bread won’t kill you…but mine as well eat white so it doesn’t absorb minerals and draw them out of your body…of course the ensuing insulin response will just lead to insulin resistance, inflammation and increased of all things heart disease and cancers.

  22. Mike OD - IF Life

    Don’t eat 2-3 hours before bed….take Cinnamon before going to sleep….lower blood glucose, lower insulin, raise glucagon…get a great GH spike in the first 2 hours of sleep…wake rested, burn more fat and live longer. Sounds like a good plan.

  23. b

    Everyone agrees carbs are bad? Whole grains are carbs, and they’re definitely good. Even saying “sugar is bad” is problematic – if you eat a lot of fruit, you’ll get a lot of sugar from those, but that’s very different from getting the same amount of sugar in your diet from high fructose corn syrup!

  24. susan

    I thought new research just came out showing that cinnamon didn’t help diabetics after all. It sounds like an interesting book though.

  25. Jade

    It must be such a good book that can answer my confusion. I have been fed up with lots of food myths.
    It’s time finding out the truths.

    But, I wonder I could not find the summary of the pros and cons of consuming soy products and drinking coffee as said at the top. I do need to know the fact so that I can feel good when taking them in my diet.

    I also heard the myth of eating pineapples, not good for women; the myth of eating eggplant, not good for men as well as for expecting mothers. won’t have enough space to mention all the myths I heard.. What I am most afraid to tell in here is that I would be the one to ridicule on 🙁

  26. Fitness_Fanatic

    What we can agree on is what’s bad. Sugar, carbs. Everything else is up in the air.

  27. KaTe

    Just requested the book from the library. thanks for the recommendation

  28. Laura

    If I may sum up…. eat fresh, eat healthy, take a vitamin, do a *little* sunbathing, and relax and smell the roses.

  29. Red

    One thing Michael Pollan AND Gary Taubes agree on is there is a lack of axioms about what is the *correct* way to eat. There’s only what’s popular at the moment.

    In this vein I’ve given up on most nutritional information, with very few exceptions. I just try to stay away from sweets and drink enough water (though not 8 whole glasses).

  30. Never teh Bride

    This book looks fantastic — though one does wonder how future studies will change the content. I’m excited to see another pro-D citation. I’ve read that those of us who live in colder climes and have lighter skin tend to get less than adequate D because we get less sunshine and cover up in the summer because of skin cancer risks.

  31. Scott Kustes - Modern Forager

    There’s truly only one rule that’s needed to ensure proper health: eat a wide variety of natural foods in their natural states. That means meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots, and tubers. Humans have been exquisitely healthy for millions of years without worrying about trimeric procyanidins, lignans, and reservatrol. We have an undying need to make things more complicated than they really are.

    Eat real food in a natural state.

    Scott Kustes
    Modern Forager

  32. MizFit

    never seen this—definitely buying.

    I do many things I think arent great for me (please to see tuna example. it’ so quick and easy) and really need to learn more (and not avoid learning more :))