When Real Pseudoscience Affects Real People

I often find it difficult to pull my head out of my research.  In focusing so much of my energy on finishing my dissertation, it’s easy to forget why I ever decided to pursue a career in food science and why I became interested in communicating its value.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky to meet someone who reminded me why.

I am part of a student group called Citation Needed at Ohio State that focuses on empowering students and the community to make informed decisions on issues in food and agriculture. We occasionally host coffee hours where we discuss particularly hot topics, and our most recent was about GMOs.

As everyone settled into their seats, a woman I had never seen before entered the room. She grabbed a few pieces of cheese and fruit and sat in the seat next to mine.  We briefly bonded over our mutual dislike of brie before the group conversation began. After only a few minutes, my new friend launched into a lengthy description of every health malady she had experienced in recent years. The cause? GMOs.


In these types of situations it is so tempting to wield scientific authority and slash through every bit of misinformation someone believes. But if I have learned one thing through my involvement in science communication, it is just as powerful to listen.

By listening, I learned a lot about where her concerns about GMOs stem from. In her furious search for answers about her health problems, she quickly fell prey to internet pseudoscience. She believed that GMOs gave her cancer and caused the rashes that cover her body. What’s more, she’s recently started to land on her feet after a period of homelessness and is struggling to follow a GMO-free diet.

As she was sharing her story with me, she asked in exasperation, “what is a GMO? Has anybody ever seen one?” Unfortunately this question is all too common in this context. There are countless others who don’t understand what GMOs are, yet they use them as a scapegoat for various health problems.  

By the end of our conversation, it was hard to keep my emotions in check. My new friend was so incredibly afraid of food, and it broke my heart. I wanted to triumphantly rescue her from the grips of the pseudoscience that was viciously consuming her life, but in the end, it is entirely her choice what foods she decides to purchase. The best thing I could do for her was listen and help her digest the scientific basis as to why she has other options.

Now as I piece together my dissertation, I am doing so with new resolve. I am even more motivated to do science, read science, share science with everyone, and, most importantly, be compassionate.

Remember, don’t eat (or share) the pseudoscience.


Matt is a PhD student at Ohio State, where he also finished his B.S. and M.S. degrees in food science.  His current research aims to understand how berries might impact oral health.  Outside of the lab, Matt enjoys cooking (that’s a given!), outdoorsy activities, and getting his hands on as many sweets as possible! (Follow him on Twitter! @teeinthegarden)


The Magic Behind the Unicorn Frappuccino

If you haven’t heard of the latest come-and-gone Starbuck’s craze, you must be living under a rock! The Unicorn Frappuccino, AKA the most Instagrammable drink on the market, has swept across the nation. This bane of baristas has already been criticized for being a veritable sugar bomb. Now, when people are buying frappuccinos they aren’t doing it for their health. In general, frappuccinos in are a treat to be enjoyed every now and then. Let’s be honest here, the Unicorn frapp isn’t even the most sugary thing on the Starbuck’s menu board. That  aside, let’s talk about what makes the unicorn frapp so cool: dat color doe.

A quick glance at the ingredient list in this magical elixir provides us a glimpse into the beautiful cacophony. The magical ingredients we’re most interested in here are the Sour Blue Powder and the Pink Powder. The blue hue is provided by spirulina, a blue-green algae, and the pink comes from a mix of fruits and vegetables, including apple, cherry, radish, and sweet potato. The real magic happens happens when you mix your frappuccino and watch it turn from purple to pink!

But is it magic? Or, more likely…chemisty? The other secret here is the citric acid in the sour blue powder. As you mix the drink, the citric acid is mixed in causing the whole drink to become more acidic, which is also why the flavor changes from sweet to sour.

But why does this cause the color to change?

The pigments responsible for the color in the pink powder are anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are present in many fruits and vegetables including blueberries, cranberries, red cabbage, and eggplant. These molecules have a special property that causes them to change color based on the pH. When the citric acid dissolves, the pH shift causes the drink to become more acidic (lower pH); this causes the anthocyanins, which start out purple, to change their structure slightly, and thus appear beautifully pink!

So, if you’re sipping this exciting new concoction while you scroll through the comments from all your jealous Instagram followers, remember… you have chemistry to thank! It’s not magic, it’s science (so don’t eat the pseudoscience)!


John in unicorn mode

Hailing from central California, John is a PhD candidate (Update: he did it! Dr. Frelka to you!) at Ohio State University studying how processing affects the physical properties of different food products. John has a B.S. and M.S. in Food Science from UC Davis where he studied both consumer food science and food microbiology. As a self-proclaimed nerd, John spends his free time reading comic books and playing board games. According to John, the major food groups are coffee, beer, and buffalo chicken dip. (Follow him on Twitter! @madfoodscience)


Daaaaaamn Panera, Back at it Again with the Pseudoscience.

Between tromping through Baguette Falls while whacking out azodicarbonamide, glycerides, artificial colors, and artificial flavors (i.e. amyl alcohol and benzaldehyde), and gallivanting around Crisp Valley Farms spotting the unwanted “No-Nos” trespassing on the property (i.e. hydrolyzed protein, polydextrose, MSG, and sodium erythorbate), Panera Bread continues its pursuit in educating consumers on the perils of “artificial” food additives and preservatives while feeding the pseudoscience madness in a cute new game. Of course, don’t forget the unusual/artificial “alien” sounds accompanying the destruction of each chemical. Luckily for the consumer, upon winning and defeating the awful droves of supposedly detrimental and awful food additions, one wins a coupon!

Panera Bread Land of Clean
Panera Bread “Land of Clean”

Panera Bread LLC introduced its “No-No List” in 2015 in an effort to be more transparent and to provide clean menu options. Complete with a video campaign, and now the “Land of Clean” game, the list focuses on chemicals and hard-to-pronounce additives that consumers find unfriendly at a glance. For example, the No-No list currently contains compounds like MSG, autolyzed yeast extract, and glycerides. Additionally, the list has previously contained common chemicals like tocopherol (it’s actually Vitamin E) and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). As a response to this misleading philosophy, we at Don’t Eat the Pseudoscience also came out with our own video to explain why these chemicals aren’t bad and how they already naturally occur in your food products.

Panera’s vision for transparency and healthfulness, while laudable, creates its own set of flaws by promoting pseudoscience through instilling fear of complex words in consumers. These changes and deletions of ingredients do not necessarily reflect positive, healthier options. A quick glance at Panera’s menu reveals some items that are not only rather high in calories – per serving – but may also approach one’s daily limits of sodium, saturated fat, and total fat. A few examples: a panini that is 1,040 kcal per serving with 46 grams of fat (out of 65g / day); another sandwich has 18g of saturated fat (out of 20g/day). Daaaaaamn Panera…way to continue spreading the pseudoscience!


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