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Busting Myths About the Food Industry

John Ruff, immediate past president of IFT

John Ruff, immediate past president of IFT

The food industry, processing, GMOs, artificial ingredients, globalization, oh my!

It’s hard to blame consumers for believing in myths about food. They are blinded with all the choices vying for attention at the supermarket and schizophrenic news headlines that muddy the water about what’s healthy and what’s not.

It’s the age of the “empowered, global consumer,” said John Ruff, immediate past president of IFT, speaking to the Cactus IFT Section on Feb. 4 in Tempe, Ariz. The Internet, social media, and quick communication at our fingertips gives the average consumer the ability to be more informed than ever before.

But there’s also a lot of misinformation that’s accessed often openly attacking food science and technology due to a general lack of understanding, he explained.

Myth #1: Food processing is new

The No. 1 myth is that food processing is a relatively new occurrence, Ruff said. “Some people might say that it’s only 50 years old. Some people say it’s 100 years old. Wrong answer. Food processing is at least a half a million years old.”

About half a million years ago humans first discovered the use of fire for cooking, Ruff says. That marks the birth of food processing and food science. That first use of fire must’ve been as foreign as any other type of food processing that came later.

“How it happened, who knows?” Ruff said. “Maybe some animal got too close and fell into the fire or maybe an ancestor killed an animal and threw it in the fire. But that particular ancestor picked the leg of whatever it was out and suddenly discovered that that meat was now tastier, easier to digest, more nutritious, and better for them.”

The advent of cooking in the Paleolithic era was followed by many other types of processing in the late Mesolithic and early Neolithic eras—around the same time of the arrival of subsistence agriculture—including drying, milling, and fermenting. Pickling and curing would come later, near the Middle Ages, and finally all the technologies of the industrial revolution that included canning, plant breeding, pasteurization, blast freezing, aseptic packaging, and the list goes on.

Myth #2: GMOs are new and unnatural

One of the most recent food developments of the present day is the technology to genetically modify crops, which brings us to myth #2—that GMOs are something new and unnatural. “GMOs are as old as crop cultivation. The birds and the bees did it 10,000 years ago,” Ruff said.

Ruff explained further that we’ve been deliberately modifying crops ever since George Mendel taught how inheritance of traits and pea plants worked. In fact, the understanding of genetics is what led Norman Borlaug to father the Green Revolution with his high-yielding wheat, which saved millions of lives in India, Africa, and Mexico.

So when it comes to modifying plants genetically, “nothing is new,” Ruff said. We just have advanced technologies that help us to do it more easily.

Myth #3: Bias doesn’t exist in research

Another myth Ruff tackled is that bias doesn’t exist when research is not funded by the food industry. It certainly is, and he presented several examples —borrowing mainly from work by David Allison and others—where “white hat bias” had crept into scientific literature.

In some studies relating to sugar, for example, there were several instances of emotion-based language that drew conclusions from causation about food based on animal or cell studies. Worse still, some of the conclusions about causation were purely based on correlations found in epidemiological studies.

With this type of bias, it’s no surprise that we get the headlines that we do. And it explains why consumers become confused so easily.

Myth #4: Globalization isn’t a good thing

In a small world where communication happens in an instant thanks to information technology, consumers often might not appreciate how complex the supply chain of food might be.

For instance, Ruff says, a simple cheeseburger could have ingredients—the wheat bun, tomatoes, beef, and sauce—from several different countries including Australia, Canada, Uruguay, Belgium, the UK, Chile, Morocco, and Spain.

Information technology is also allowing us to make improvements to the food system by helping us to more quickly respond to consumer demands and food insecurity all over the world.

Myth #5: Processed food can’t be good for you

One other widely disseminated belief is that processed food can’t be good for you, but this is yet another mischaracterization. Even fast food can be healthy, Ruff says.

In fact, in 2012, a review paper published in The Journal of Nutrition determined that the processing level of foods was actually only a minor determinant of the individual food’s nutrient contribution to diet.

So, the authors argued, processed foods should not be overlooked and did have an important nutritional role for consumers. But that might not be enough of a convincing argument for consumers, who seem to love to hate food technology and science. Because of rising mistrust of food science and technology, Ruff says IFT is calling for its members to speak out about their industry.

“The future of our profession is at stake here,” Ruff said. “If we don’t get people to understand what food science has done in the past, what it’s doing today, and how critical it is to feed the world in the future; if we’re going to feed 9 billion people by 2050, we cannot afford to say, be a Luddite and throw away food technology and food science.”

– David Despain, MS, Cactus Section IFT Newsletter Committee Chair