Do Avatar characters eat cheese? James Cameron’s films may suspend disbelief, but his dairy claims are fiction, not fact.

In our brave new world, where questioning authority and searching for truth are championed as positive attributes, it is ironic that we tend to follow predictable behaviour patterns when faced with new information. Decisions which we consider to be impartial, or opinions that we hold about controversial issues based on evidence, balance and facts, may prove to be anything but when scrutinised further.

Take, for example, the preponderance of media articles suggesting that meat and dairy consumption are unhealthy – for us, the animals and the planet. One of the most recent, a plea from film-maker and deep-sea explorer James Cameron, plays upon three phenomena relating to decision-making – cultural cognition, bad news bias and confirmation bias.

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We assume that we make impartial, balanced decisions, but we’re far more subject to bias than we may think. Graphic from Capper (2017) Cattle Practice.

Celebrities have been used to sell products, messages and ideologies for centuries, from the Royal Family endorsing Wedgewood pottery in the 1760s, to Bette Davis advertising shampoo in the 1950s and Joanna Lumley now gaining publicity for activist causes. However, fame doesn’t imply any degree of expertise, knowledge or understanding of the issue, just a belief that the solution lies with X, whatever X might be.

Most of us aim to be like our heroes, whether they are famous based on appearance, acting ability, athletic skill or career prominence; thus we are prone to cultural cognition. If I believe that celebrity A believes that something is right/wrong and I aspire to being like this celebrity, I am more likely to adopt their message without question. The fact that a famous Hollywood film maker (and deep-sea explorer – seriously, who doesn’t aspire to be a deep-sea explorer?) has sufficient belief to write an op-ed in The Guardian claiming that we should all reduce meat and dairy consumption, therefore resonates with us far more highly than the same message from a non-famous individual.

The inevitable “this is killing us and the planet” rhetoric adds an extra layer of credibility via bad news bias, in that we are preconditioned to believe negative news over positive news. “Bad news sells” is clichéd, yet true (and explains the popularity of “X Causes Cancer” stories in the Daily Mail) and we need five pieces of positive information to negate each piece of negative information.

Confirmation bias is the final layer in this anti-meat and dairy club sandwich. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to have missed media coverage of potential impacts of meat and dairy consumption on health. If we consciously (or subconsciously) absorb the message that these foods are bad, then Cameron’s claims that “eating too much meat and dairy is making us sick, greatly increasing our risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, several major cancers (including breast, liver and prostate) and obesity” agree with our existing bias and we are likely to believe them. However, these claims do not accord with (nor are linked to) current scientific literature on dairy consumption.

This would include, for example, a meta-analysis in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, which demonstrated a negative association between dairy consumption and breast cancer, i.e. increasing dairy product consumption may be associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer. In addition, a dose-response meta-analysis in the European Journal of Epidemiology reported neutral associations (i.e. no clear positive or negative association) between dairy product consumption and cardiovascular and all-cause mortality. Perhaps even the recent article in Nutrition Research Reviews, which concluded that recommending reduced dairy consumption in order to lower saturated fatty acid intakes (and thus the risk of type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease) would have limited, or possibly negative effects.

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Ice-cream (and other dairy products) may reduce the risk of breast cancer.  

When the subject under discussion is the fictional lives of blue-skinned human hybrids (as per the film Avatar, directed by Cameron), it’s perhaps easier to use imagination than rely on scientific veracity. However, having an evidence basis for claims made in media articles is increasingly important, especially when the claims are made by those who are only prominent for their excellence in other (non-scientific) areas.

In the meantime, eat, drink and be merry over the next two weeks – content in the knowledge that clotted cream with your mince pie will not have adverse health effects, and may even prevent against cancer. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

 

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How Long is Long-Term? Are We in Danger of Sacrificing Food Security to Satisfy GMO Paranoia?

FrankenfoodsMy Twitter feed is being taken over by two things: 1) arguments and 2) comments that are going to cause arguments. Almost every tweet appears to draw a contrary comment – I’m tempted to post “Elephants have four legs and one trunk” just to see how many people reply “No, there’s an elephant in South Africa called Minnie who only has three legs but has two trunks…”

The latest discussions (debates? arguments? long drawn-out 140-character battles?) have related to the safety of GMOs. Without exception, the argument from the nay-sayers comes down to “We don’t know what the long-term effects are, so we should ban them until we can conclude that they’re safe.”

In other words, we’re trying to prove a negative – show me that there’s no adverse effects whatsoever and I’ll believe it’s ok. Utterly impossible. Can you be absolutely sure that the screen you’re reading this on isn’t causing constant, minute but irreparable damage to your eyes? Water, that essential nutrient without which humans, animals and plants would die, can kill through drowning or intoxication. Even oxygen, without which brain cells are irretrievably damaged in just 10 minutes,  causes seizures and death when inhaled at high pressures. Should we ban these, just in case?

Perhaps we should take a long-term approach to all new technologies. iPhones were only introduced seven years ago, yet many of us spend considerable amounts of time typing on them, or holding them to our ears when they’re not in our pockets – what health-damaging consequences could these shiny new toys confer? What about the now-ubiquitous hand sanitizer? Once only the province of hospitals and germophobes, it’s now sloshed around by the gallon. Touted to kill 99.9% of harmful bacteria – what harm could those chemicals be doing to our fragile physiology?

I’ve yet to meet anybody who, when scheduled for quadruple bypass surgery, demanded that the surgeon only used techniques developed in 1964; or a type I diabetes sufferer who would only use insulin produced from pigs, as it was originally in 1923. When I was treated for breast cancer, I jumped at the chance to be part of a clinical trial involving a new monoclonal antibody treatment, regardless of the very slight risk of heart damage. In medicine, we seem happy to trust that science has the answers – not surprisingly, we prefer to survive today and take our changes with side-effects tomorrow.

With regards to food however, the opposite appears to be the case. The first commercial GMO (the Flavr Savr tomato) was introduced in 1994, GM corn and soy were commercialized in 1996, and not one death or disease has been attributed to any of these crops. Yet the “what are the long-term effects?” concern still persists. So how long-term is long enough? 10 years? 20? 50? Should we keep researching and testing these crops for another 80+ years before allowing them onto the market around the year 2100?

If your answer is yes, just pause for a moment and ask your parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents what life was like during the Great Depression in the USA, or World War II in Europe. Consider what life was like when food was scarce or rationed, when, for example, a British adult was only allowed to buy 4 oz of bacon, 8 oz ground beef, 2 oz each of butter and cheese, 1 fresh egg and 3 pints of milk per week. Those quantities of meat and cheese would only be enough to make two modern bacon cheeseburgers.

By 2050, the global population is predicted to be over 9 billion people. I don’t relish the idea of explaining to my grandchildren that they live with food scarcity, civil unrest (food shortages are one of the major causes of conflict) and malnutrition because public paranoia regarding GMOs meant that a major tool for helping us to improve food production was removed from use. In the developed world we have the luxury of choosing between conventional, natural, local, organic and many other production systems. However, we’re in danger of forgetting that not everybody has the same economic, physical or political freedom to choose. If you gave a basket of food to a family in sub-Saharan Africa subsisting on the equivalent of $30 per week, would they refuse it on the basis that the quinoa wasn’t from Whole Foods, the meat wasn’t organic and the tofu wasn’t labeled GMO-free?

When we have sufficient food being supplied to everybody in the world to allow them to be healthy and productive, we can then start refining the food system. Until then, the emphasis should be on finding solutions to world hunger, not forcing food system paranoia onto those who don’t have a choice.

Correlation vs. Causation – The Gluten-Free Example

My gluten-free tweetI’ve just been involved in that most pointless of activities – a Twitter argument. Entirely without value as neither side will admit defeat (or even concede ground) and it’s difficult to make rational, lucid points using words like “hereafter” and “whither” when the 140 character limit turns scientific discussion into a sea of “u r misinformed re: assoc w/glutfree diet” gobbledegook.

This debate was caused by me posting the photo to the left relating to the use of  “gluten-free” as a marketing term associated with supposedly healthier food. However, in the tweet below, the arguer (arguee?) demonstrated the commonly confused correlation vs. causation which appears to be the poster child for populist bandwagon-jumping science.

Coeliac tweetTheir follow-up tweet cited this website, which claims that 55 diseases can be caused by eating gluten, and there’s a link to a peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine paper to prove it. Excellent use of scientific literature to support the adoption of a gluten-free diet.

55 diseasesJust one tiny problem… the 55 diseases* listed in the table to the left are indeed associated with cœliac** disease in that people who are cœliac (0.3-0.8% of the population) often also suffer from a range of other conditions. However, this does not mean that anybody suffering from short stature, diarrhea, rheumatoid arthritis or congenital heart disease will have their symptoms relieved by adopting a gluten-free diet. Heck, if it did, we’d all be 6 feet tall and heart-healthy, right?

To put it another way, all penguins are black and white. Does that mean that all black and white objects are penguins? I have utmost sympathy for sufferers of cœliac disease as it must be a very difficult and painful condition. However, when a gluten-free diet is not only promoted being more healthy for the general population, but backed by willful misinterpretation of peer-reviewed data, it’s just another indication that we need better scientific education. Correlation not causation – rinse and repeat.

*Note that these are not all diseases per se, but that was how they were defined by the website 
** An autoimmune disease in which the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten, leading to difficulty in digesting food. As a Brit, I’m using the English spelling as I find it too grammatically painful to omit the ligature (œ)