Junkfood Science: Cooking up fears

March 15, 2007

Cooking up fears

Trevor Butterworth made an interesting observation today at STATS. We tend to let our guard down and not suspect anything but good science is behind the advice of people we’ve come to trust are looking out for our health and well-being. They’re the “good guys.” He uncovered a side-line business in pots and pans by one of the bestselling authors in the wellness movement.

It is impossible not to add mention of the similarities with another famous wellness icon selling his own line of pots and pans.

Mr. Butterworth wrote:

Teflon Pan Scare Comes with Sales Pitch

Popular wellness doctor, Dr. Joseph Mercola pitches his own line of cookware to save you from a non-existent threat... Unfortunately, popularity on the Internet is not a proxy for accuracy. Take Mercola’s e-mail alert to subscribers this week about the dangers of cookware....To cut to the chase, Mercola advises his readers to avoid Teflon-coated cookware because it “contains” PFOA – perflurooctanoic acid, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems a “likely carcinogen.” There then follows a long list of reasons why cooking with Teflon-coated products “could be endangering your family and pets.”

What Mercola misses in his rush to indict Teflon, and – funnily enough – sell you his own line of cookware – is that it is impossible to ingest PFOA from Teflon. PFOA is used to bond the Teflon coating to a metal surface, but in the process, which involves extremely high temperatures, virtually all of the PFOA is incinerated. The remainder is not accessible under any normal cooking method – unless you actually ate the pan along with whatever you cooked in it (in which case, PFOA would be the least of your problems).

All of which is why the Food and Drug Administration and the EPA have said that consumers are just not at risk from using Teflon-coated cookware....

Actually, the online sales pitch is worth reading as an entertaining example of how to scare people and get them to believe one has “science” behind what is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Popular techniques include using as proof:

1. class action lawsuits charging that an evil company is “exposing millions of American to health risks”

2. investigations from federal agencies responding to subpeonas, as if that is evidence of harm or wrongdoing

3. claims that the pure chemical has been linked to harm in animal studies — not revealing that the studies are irrelevant because in real life the chemical exposure is very different or, as STATS shared above, there is no exposure at all because none of the chemical is even left after production; and not revealing that no problem has ever been shown in people in real life after decades of safe use and safety testing

4. not providing actual scientific studies or verifiable references, or quoting old studies that have long ago been discredited or unreplicable

5. claims that many other people also fear this, so we should, too

6. including lots of scary-sounding speculations, especially for the children, being sure to disregard that the dose makes the poison.

Eliciting frightening visions, as in this example, is often the build up to the solution or product being sold:

In cases of "Teflon toxicosis," the lungs of exposed birds hemorrhage and fill with fluid, leading to what must be an agonizing death from suffocation. Is it such a stretch to wonder what these fumes could be doing to you and your children?

Heavens, what parent wouldn't feel a touch of fear? But the ending is classic infomercial:

You could easily spend $189.95 for just one piece of Le Creuset cast iron cookware...But why waste money? Now you can get this entire Enameled Cast Iron Cookware 5-piece set for less than one pan and lid of Le Creuset!....We've only got a limited supply this beautiful, affordable, and safe cookware in stock. I expect demand to exceed our initial supply, given all the benefits you'll get. So, I'd urge you to put your order in right away, before we run out....

Teflon has been around since 1938, when it was used during the war. It’s been used in cookware since 1960, when the FDA first approved its use in things that come in contact with food. But scares about teflon aren’t the only ones surrounding cookware. Another first appeared decades ago and, like all such myths, continues to resurface long after concerns have been laid to rest: aluminum. If there’s money to be made in keeping a scare going, there will be those who will.

In a short article a few weeks ago that few people probably even read, the Chicago Tribune reported:

Dr. Weil adds venture

"COOKING UP ANOTHER DEAL: Health guru Dr. Andrew Weil, whose name has been tacked onto everything from Pet Promise dog food to Origins Plantidote mega-mushroom face serum, has signed a deal with Bloomingdale's to exclusively launch the Dr. Weil Health Kitchen line of cookware and electronics.

"The cookware claims to have specially rolled edges that prevent food from interacting with aluminum, which some believe is linked to Alzheimer's disease. The after-tax profits help fund the Dr. Weil Foundation, a not-for-profit group focused on supporting integrative medicine."

Not unlike nonstick cookware introduced more than 40 years ago, aluminum cookware has been used safely by millions of consumers for generations.

While the FDA doesn’t specifically regulate cookware, according to John Thomas at the division of regulatory guidance at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, when safety concerns are raised, the FDA gets involved. Chemicals that might migrate from cookware into food are considered food additives and fall under FDA’s jurisdiction. The FDA has determined that aluminum cooking utensils, aluminum foil, antiperspirants, antacids, and other aluminum products are generally safe. According to the Department of Health and Human Services and the EPA, even in animals, aluminum hasn’t been shown to cause cancer and children do not appear any more sensitive to risks associated with extremely high exposures than adults.

Aluminum is ubiquitous and in the air, water, soil, plants and animals we eat, and us. It is the third most abundant element in the earth’s crust — after oxygen and silicon! The amount that could leach from aluminum cookware is a fraction of what we’re exposed to naturally every day.

To put our daily exposure into perspective, Dale Blumenthal wrote in the FDA Consumer:

John Koning, M.D., from Riverside General Hospital in Corona, Calif., responded most ingested aluminum is recovered in the feces, and much more is ingested by a person taking antacids than one could ever leach from an aluminum pan....According to the Aluminum Association, one antacid tablet can contain 50 milligrams of aluminum or more and it is not unusual for a person with an upset stomach to consume more than 1,000 milligrams... of aluminum per day. A buffered aspirin tablet may contain about 10 to 20 milligrams of aluminum.

In contrast, in a worst-case scenario, a person using uncoated aluminum pans for all cooking and food storage every day would take in an estimated 3.5 milligrams of aluminum daily.

Aluminum cookware makes up more than half of all cookware sold, according to the Cookware Manufacturers Association, because aluminum is an extremely good conductor of heat. But most aluminum cookware used by home cooks today have nonstick coatings or have been treated to harden the structure of the metal, allaying any consumer fears. Recent technology has given us hard-anodized aluminum cookware that’s been specially made to be strong and durable, scratch resistant, nonstick, twice as hard as stainless steel, non-reactive and seals the aluminum to prevent any leaching into foods.

There is simply no credible evidence that we have anything to fear from cooking with our pots and pans, no matter what we paid for them.

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