Bug Girl called it. When the Scientific American piled on with alarm about cochineal, she called them on it. As a professor of entomology, she knows her bugs. She’s probably heard every scare there is about perfectly harmless little bugs. People are squeamish and easily grossed out by creepy things they don’t understand and the thought of eating bugs… “OMGBUGZ!”
Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus Costa) is a relatively harmless natural red coloring extracted from miniscule scale insects that live on cactus pads. It’s been valued throughout Mesoamerica at least since the 10th century Toltec period. The ancient Aztecs called it nocheztli or grana, explained Jeff Schalau with the Arizona Cooperative Extension in Yavapai County. The traditional methods used to cultivate and harvest the cochineal insects and extract the brilliant crimson ink are still practiced in Mexico
Earlier this month, Bug Girl wrote an engaging article about cochineal, hoping to clear up some of the scares and misinformation going around, especially taking the Scientific American to task. As she explained, the FDA has investigated the safety of cochineal and, except for rare allergic reactions to the dye (three cases in ten years), found it to be non-toxic. No bug parts actually end up in the extracted dye (carminic acid), either. She ended her piece, saying:
Actually, there’s lots of actual bug parts in your food all the time, and the FDA knows and approves of it. Insects happen. It’s part of living on Earth, and we just can’t get things sterile, no matter how much we try.
Why not join the rest of the world and start adding insects as a regular part of your diet? They are regularly eaten around the world, and are quite nutritious… Join me in celebrating a sustainable, low-impact protein source! Or, at least join me in not worrying about a tiny amount of bug-derived compounds in your food.
Reading the melodramatic Scientific American’s version, on the other hand, readers were warned they are eating the bug juices of dead “cochineal beetles.” Sourcing entirely from a press release from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been lobbying the FDA to ban it or label foods to say it comes from insects, the article inflated the dangers of potentially life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. (There’s almost no food eaten by humans that that couldn’t be said, if you stopped to think about it for a minute.) CSPI’s executive director was quoted as saying the FDA should have gone further because “many unwitting consumers may be sensitive to—not to mention revolted by the notion of—bug bits in their grub.”
Her follow-up article on what has quickly become a saga is priceless. First, Bug Girl said, CSPI writes an “alarmist press release which suggests not only are there insects in your food, but dangerous insects! They call for a ban, and as a bonus make a rather huge taxonomic error with a scarab beetle photo.” Being the Bug Girl, she notices things like that. “That is a BEETLE,” she wrote. “Not even remotely a scale insect, much less the actual cochineal scale insect.”
Next, she said, the New York Times blogger picks up the press release, telling readers there are “bugs in their food.” She posts the same incorrect photo of a beetle. When a writer pointed out the taxonomic error, Bug Girl said, “the Times author used Wikipedia as a source. Egad.” You can read the rest of her commentary here.
Then, “not only did Scientific American pick up on the alarmist press release about cochineal from the Center For Science in the Public Interest,” she wrote, “it actually added extra taxonomic errors and entomophobia, for good measure!” The Scientific American printed “the CSPI news release (with offending photo) almost verbatim, and even ADDS several alarmist comments about OMGBUGZ-IN-URFOODS,” she wrote. As a garnish, they called cochineal ‘beetle juice’ and the scale insects ‘cochineal beetles.’”
The tenor of both mainstream media articles was one of fear and bug gross-out — “OMGBUGZ!” — and neither made any effort to question or check the validity of CSPI’s claims. Bug Girl could have kept going with more examples because media is like the game of telephone and stories spread with the tales becoming more embellished in each telling. And none of them stopped to fact check or had the expertise to understand what they were reporting. “God help us if they find out that shellac is sometimes used on apples to make them shiny, or how figs really get pollinated,” she lamented.
Bloggers occasionally screw up with fact-checking, too, she said, but the Scientific American and New York Times have professional news staff and she lambasted them for not checking their facts:
If you are part of the media apparatchik, for God’s sake, check your facts! Make a call! Just because some organization has “science” in the title, that doesn’t mean they are experts. Clearly, I need to start issuing press releases so that I can have my opinions published uncritically everywhere.
Bug Girl, in her own unique style, made some good points. If only this taxonomic error was the only example of mainstream media dropping the ball… The Scientific American did it again. Only worse.
This story followed the cochineal outline. There was this press release… issued by another lobbying group. This one said that invisible toxins in extremely low levels are neurotoxins and pose a “very real danger” to children. These dangers, called “third-hand smoke,” were said to be found lingering in the air and everything that comes in contact with a smoker long after lighting up. The New York Times journalist reported the story verbatim from the press release, embellishing it with ominous scares of her own, describing the new hazard as an “invisible toxic brew” that contains cancer-causing chemicals and even a “highly radioactive carcinogen” so dangerous it was used to murder former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. Another blogger at the New York Times and editors of its Week in Review also reported on this danger as being one that “a smoker inflicts on others.”
The story was picked up around the world. No reporter fact-checked the story to discover that there was no study and no science. In fact, the claims were so scientifically implausible that in order to be true, every known law of science would have to be false. This was all covered here in detail.
Like the cochineal story, the Scientific American reported this one, too. The author also elaborated the story with warnings: “Beware of Third-hand Smoke” and built a crescendo of fear, asserting that the dangers to infants and children have worried researchers for years and “may be even more far-reaching.” She interviewed Dr. Jonathan P. Winickoff, lead author of the Pediatric article and chair of the AAP Tobacco Consortium, and appeared to be quoting him throughout the rest of her article. Dr. Winickoff was asked what he considered the most dangerous compound in THS and was quoted as saying “cyanide, which is used in chemical weapons...” and asphyxiates its victims.
While this reference was no doubt meant to scare lay readers — cyanide, at least in the world of murder mysteries, sounds so deadly! — scientists were nonplused. At exposures barely at levels of detection with the most sophisticated measurements, they knew that it was biologically unfeasible to be harmful, let alone deadly. It went beyond the fact that cyanide from a cigarette has a half life of about four minutes. Since it is a science magazine, readers might rightly have expected to read the reassuring scientific facts available from chemistry and toxicology. They didn’t.
We ingest small amounts of cyanide every day. Our body is designed to detoxify cyanide in the small doses we encounter. Fruits, such as those from the rose or prunus family (cherries, apples, plums, almonds, peaches, apricots, raspberries and crabapples), soy, spinach, bamboo shoots, cassava, corn, elderberries, flaxseed, teas, and lima beans are all sources of cyanogenic glycosides.
Cyanide is another of the thousands of natural phytochemicals found in nature and make up 99.9% of the “pesticides” that we eat in our food every day. Plants make these natural pesticides to protect themselves from predators and, as we know, all-natural pesticides are just as toxic at the same extremely high doses as those in the far smaller amounts of man-made chemicals we eat. Our bodies have smartly evolved with their own natural defenses against a tremendous variety of chemicals, according to research by Dr. Bruce Ames, professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the University of California in Berkeley.
“Among the twenty-four leading food plants in the world, sixteen are cyanogenic,” explained professors C. Leigh Broadhurst, Ph.D., and James A. Duke, Ph.D., in Herb Companion. To enjoy some plants with especially high natural levels of cyanide, prehistoric man also learned to “process” the foods by grinding, rinsing and cooking to make them safer, and sweeter. “Cyanogenic glycosides have a chemical structure that contains one carbon with a cyanide group linked to a sugar (‘glyco’ means sugar),” they said. During digestion, the cyanide group is released and forms hydrocyanic acid which is toxic, but like everything “the dose makes the poison.”
Even Snopes, the Urban Legend Reference Page, still hears from people afraid they can get cyanide poisoning from eating three apple seeds. If this were true, Mikkelson explained, “it would mean each and every one of us was flirting with the grim reaper every time we made a grab for a Delicious.”
But, in what can only be described as exemplifying the most negligent medical reporting, Scientific American dropped an even bigger Scare Bomb. It reported that rat studies had suggested that mere exposure to smokers and the toxic THS lingering around them “is the leading cause of sudden infant death syndrome,” purportedly causing respiratory suppression in babies.
We have gone beyond pseudoscience to just making stuff up. There is no credible science here. None. It is easy to frighten new parents half to death with thoughtless scares, it’s quite another take responsibility and accountability when reporting medical information that affects people’s lives. After dropping this scare bomb, the writer made no — nada, zip — effort to back up this scare with any science, no attempt to investigate its scientific or medical credibility or plausibility in humans, and failed to even seek and present a balance of views from medical professionals or scientists.
Where were the scientists? Freelance writers don’t get published without either being assigned a story by a magazine’s editor or receiving the editor’s endorsement, and stories published in national magazines undergo multiple rounds of edits and editorial reviews. As Bug Girl noted, the Scientific American has people.
Now, parents who are devastated by the loss of their newborn from SIDS will be needlessly blamed and endure the heart wrenching pain of guilt, believing that they may have caused the death of their own baby because they let their baby come into contact with a smoker. Or that they, themselves, failed to decontaminate themselves sufficiently before holding their baby. This is cruel. This is wrong.
As scare bombs do, this one quickly made its way around the world reported as science and almost within hours “THS as a killer” became a truism, another urban legend and something “everybody on the planet knows.” It was especially spread by young mothers and nonscience writers quoting the authority of the Scientific American. This fear has proliferated in parenting publications — from Suite 101 to Neurotic Mom to Mother and Baby in Australia — frightening parents and leading them to feel so alarmed many were moved to call for ridding every public place of smokers to protect their children.
With scientific literacy lower than ever, it’s not only easier than ever to take advantage of people and scare them by dropping scare bombs about toxins and “chemicals,” it’s even harder to explain scientifically why they needn’t feel afraid. Once people have become fearful, it’s exceedingly difficult to help them. And people who are afraid become even more vulnerable to being harmed by those ready to take advantage of their fears. This places a special responsibility on health and science journalists to check their facts, and take care to report the soundest information.
Does anyone even notice anymore, as in both the cochineal and THS media stories, that we only hear one side of these stories? The doomsday scares. Have people sadly become so ready to believe that the world — our food, environment, health and lives — is so hazardous and that we’re at the brink of apocalyptic disaster that it never even occurs to them question the scare mongering or seek out other information from credible, unbiased scientists? Marketing appears to have become so commonplace, we don’t even recognize it anymore or realize what we’re missing.
© 2009 Sandy Szwarc