Pseudoscience and diet trends in the social media age

In Comment, Slider Posts by Will Carroll


Organic. Whole-grain. GMO free. Natural. Gluten Free.  Alkaline. Detoxifying. Chemical free. Energising. Immune boosting. Free radical-eliminating. Superfood. Miracle cure!

You see these buzzwords every day on the packaging of food trying desperately to prove its worthiness, and on the countless vegan Instagrams and health blogs that litter the internet with their irrepressibly peppy self-improvement vibes. Do most of us care enough to delve deeper into the actual truth behind the slogans? Hell no, that’s a deep and endless rabbit hole of crazy. Unfortunately, as someone who works in science, I suffer from a particular kind of pedantry that insists I must occasionally  (frequently) wade into arguments both in real life and on social media and at least try to offer a few rational counterpoints.

Recently, it seems as if pseudoscience has moved much more into the mainstream consciousness, when really it should have stayed in the backwater pond where it belongs. There are a lot of genuinely great food blogs out there, which range from promoting meat free lifestyles to low GI food to caveman-inspired diets. Most of these are benign, and full of really helpful tips on how to eat a little healthier – and god knows, a lot of pizza and noodle fuelled students could use them. But then there are those that verge onto the puritanical, the carb-hating spiralise-everything clean eaters, who turn whole food groups into dirty words. These diets are often backed by very little research or even evidence that they actually work, and can be extremely damaging to those who suffer from eating disorders and people who fixate on rules and restrictions.

My own father recently took up the Paleo diet as part of his ongoing war with middle age, and has produced endless lists of things he can’t eat, which includes wheat, dairy, all members of the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines), and all legumes (lentils, peas, beans). Yet, he can happily munch through a plate of bacon and eggs because the fancy Paleo book he bought online for £25 told him he could because it’s what a neanderthal would have eaten. A neanderthal with a frying pan, and an average life expectancy of 30. At some point he will probably drop this diet, presumably because it’s insanely restrictive and annoying, and be none the worse for it.

But I can’t help worrying about those who will get sucked into some other pseudoscientific fad, which forces them to live off shakes or smoothies or dry crackers, and they will end up with real deficiencies. The problem is, literally any wellness guru or snake oil seller can call themselves a “Nutritionist” and make themselves a slick blog page, but you actually have to study for years to become a registered clinical dietitian. Online, it can be hard to tell the difference between good advice and advice which is simply trying to sell the latest product.

There’s been a lot of talk about experts recently, from the economic experts who advised against Brexit, to the climate change scientists who are insisting that the ocean really is warming, despite all our best efforts. And the consensus in the media seems to be, “Keep your damn experts! They’re elitist sell outs who don’t care about the common man”. Which is a fairly reasonable position for most people to hold when we have little  enough control over our lives as it is without some bigwig in a suit trying to take away our delicious fried meats because they might increase the risk of cancer. But when your name is Donald Trump, and you are in charge of state-funded science, education and healthcare, a stubborn refusal to listen to any experts at all is frankly terrifying. There has to come a point when we must concede the argument to the person with more expertise in the subject.

If you’ve ever heard of Chem trails, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about. This is a bizarre conspiracy theory which emerged a few years ago which speculates that the white  contrails that naturally form behind the jet engines of passenger planes are secretly toxic chemicals sprayed on us by the government/aliens/terrorists (pick one). And presumably this shadowy organisation also has an airtight bunker somewhere so that they can escape the poisonous air that they created which they also happen to breathe. For some reason, this conspiracy has gained so much support that climate scientists have actually had to waste time debunking it with scary facts and figures about pressure and air temperature. It’s always a good policy to stay flexible and open minded, particularly in the digital age where facts are continuously changing and updating, but not to the point where you start seeing monsters where there aren’t any. Sometimes, vaporised water in the sky is just vaporised water in the sky.

There’s a much darker side to pseudoscience, beneath the vaguely humorous conspiracy theories, and it’s much the same as the one which clouds the so-called “Fake News” epidemic. When this rubbish clogs up our social media feeds, people miss out on the actual truths. The scientific research produced by reputable bodies like NASA, or independent articles from NGOs and charities. It draws attention away from legitimate issues; the chem-trail folks blame non-existent evil science henchmen for their polluted air, when every day there are ten thousand passenger jumbo jets cruising through the atmosphere and emitting very real greenhouse gases (check out Flight Radar for a real time look at every single aircraft that’s flying around the Earth right now. Nerdy, but neat)  Some angry blogger on YouTube will make an hour long video called “ThE TrUTH NO OnE IS TELLIng YOU” but they won’t protest about the building of yet another runway at Heathrow.

Call me a pedant, a government shill, an emotionless Spock-like fun sponge, fine. But if there’s one thing you can absorb from this piece, it’s that critical thinking and common sense is needed now more than ever. Keep reading widely and questioning sources, listen to the experts and try to take the things you hear with a little pinch of salt.

Organic Kosher Himalayan Pink Mountain Salt of course – none of that “Sodium chloride” bollocks.

By Anna Lim