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Sunday, September 12, 2010

In Praise of McDonalds

Noted foody Ezra Klein wrote "McDonalds is delicious". Utterly amazed, I clicked and found Adam Roberts's food blog post praising the taste of McDonalds's food. Amusingly Roberts reliably predicted the he would piss off either McDonald's fans or foodies who think that "the entryway to Hell isn't marked, as Dante suggested, with the phrase "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" but, instead, by golden arches."

I share Klein's and Roberts's opinion. However, Roberts insists that the food is unhealthy, because it contains preservatives.

"Note the wording on the box: "All The Best." Just those three words are suspect. Is this chicken sandwich really "all the best"? We know it's not. We know this bread is filled with stabilizers and preservatives,"


"All that food, however good it might taste in the moment, produces both a physical and spiritual aftertaste. You start feeling the chemicals on your tongue,"

I comment:

Brilliant and daring. Congratulations on the link from Ezra Klein (I never expected to read the link text on his blog).

However, you missed one group that you were bound to piss off -- preservative enthusiasts. OK I'm not sure the plural is accurate, since I might be the only one, but I am absolutely totally 100% sincere. I think that BHA and BHT are good for you.

The weird thing is that health food enthusiasts are convinced of two things -- that anti-oxidants are healthy and that preservatives are unhealthy. The only problem is that "anti-oxidant" and "preservative" are synonyms.

This is not (quite) a logical inconsistency. Their view is that natural preservatives are healthy and that synthetic anti-oxidants are unhealthy. There is essentially no evidence supporting this hypothesis and people have been looking for such evidence for decades.

Why did you insult preservatives ? I assert that the scientific evidence tends to suggest that bread with preservatives is better for your health than bread without preservatives. Is there any data supporting your contrary view ? What convinced you ?

What about feeling chemicals on your tongue. Can you really feel those chemicals ? Have you performed a blind tongue feel test with food that differs only by addition (or not) of those chemicals ? I would bet 100 to one that you haven't and that you claim you can feel something based not on a test of feeling but the way you feel given your knowledge and prejudices.

I stress this post is not a joke. I think that BHA and BHT are good for peoples's health. I even think that use of BHA and BHT are partly responsible for the increase in life expectancy since they were introduced.

update: Kevin Drum says my reasoning is in this post, but there isn't much above so I add the following:

My reasoning was not explained after the link (always click the link anyway -- Kevin Drum). I agree with Luther, so my claim is stronger than that made by Crissa. The logic is exactly that preservatives preserve us.

To get technical, preservatives are anti-oxidants and oxidative stress (roughly rusting) is allegedly implicated in cancer and cardio-vascular disease. I note that there was a dramatic increase in US life expectancy in the 70s (similar to the increase in the 40s following the introduction of penicillin). This was due to reduced incidence of heart attacks. It was ascribed to improved diet and increased exercize. Sure mac, that's why we are so much thinner than we used to be.

Now continuing improvement can be partly explained by statins (one can be overweight, eat lots of saturated fat, never exercize and have low LDL cholesterol these days -- that's my plan). Also some by bypass surgery and shunts and stuff. This is mostly post 70s. There is a huge mystery in the data which can be explained if it is noted that anti-oxidants reduce arterio-schlerosis in model systems (over-fed rats).

In any case, the claim that anti-oxidants prevent arterioschlerosis is absolutely totally very respectable and BHA and BHT are anti-oxidants. There is a fairly large literature asserting that this or that food contains anti-oxidants. In each case which I checked, the anti-oxidant was compared to BHA or BHT (or both).

So why are people so deeply convinced that BHA and BHT are bad for our health ? One reason is that extremely large doses cause cancer of the fore-stomach in mice and rats.

This result was part of the evidence which convinced people (including the guy who taught me organic chemistry) that organic chemistry was a menace, because many many synthetic organic chemicals are carcinogenic. In 1979, he predicted a big increase in cancer in the 80s roughly 20 years after they began flowing into our diet (20 year lag from aggregate cigarette smoking and lung cancer). That didn't happen -- aggregate cancer incidence is almost completely explained by age (to the fifth) and cigarette smoking. My view is that many compounds which are carcinogenic in huge doses are safe in small doses and in other cases the carcinogenisis depends on the fifth power of the dose which amounts to pretty much the same thing. Also I am not a mouse and don't have a fore-stomach.

There seems to be a very strong belief that natural chemicals are OK and synthetic chemicals are dangerous. This once convinced scientists (including that synthetic organic chemist). The evidence is now weaker. Note tobacco is natural and highly carcinogenic. Ergot is natural too.

I am not an expert on, well, anything, but I am absolutely sincere.


Richard H. Serlin said...

Yeah, but there's much more than the preservatives.

The food is very high calorie for it's fillingness, especially compared to unrefined plant foods.

And it crowds out of the diet unrefined plant foods which are immensely higher in hundreds of beneficial phytochemicals.

Moreover, animals, who eat many times their weight in plants, concentrate the toxins in plants and in the environment, and McDonalds food is very heavy in animal food, especially the high saturated fatty kind.

As a result of all of this, this kind of food, over decades, strongly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other very bad things -- even if you are one of the few people who could manage to stay thin on this stuff into middle age and beyond.

For a good layout of the scientific case, see the book, "Eat to Live" by Joel Fuhrman, M.D. The epidemiological evidence is especially strong.

rjs said...

"McDonalds has done more for integration
than the Federal Govt… someone should give
them a grant. negroes caucasions mongolians
hippies (a different race) economic integration
cultural integration, everyone after those
16 ¢ent hamburgers & 20¢ milkshakes"

- "Suburban Monastery Death Poem - PART FOUR - Forest Hills Park", d.a.levy (1968)

Anonymous said...

Just asserting that bread with preservatives is better for your health is no good, it's what the "additive-free" brigade does. So please explain why it is in your opinion better for your health.

eightnine2718281828mu5 said...

Biological systems are just spaghetti code; there could be any number of things going on through multiple pathways and until we enumerate all of these effects we won't have a complete model of what's going on.

Sort of like economics. ;-)

Resveratrol, in addition to being an antioxidant, is a phytoalexin released by grapes in response to fungal attacks. So it has other modes of activity besides being an antioxidant.

And most antioxidants are quickly metabolized into compounds with little or no antioxidant properties.

Some people theorize that some of these compounds and/or the metabolites trigger the release of uric acid (an endogenous antioxidant) into the bloodstream. Fructose apparently does this as well.

Personally, I think red cabbage is a winner; it's cheap, contains anthocyanins and sulforaphane, and may have anti-obesity effects.

Red cabbage also has acylated anthocyanins, which are more stable than unacylated anthocyanins. They have lower bioavailability, but may remain intact longer in vivo, which may be a good thing.

Cocoa powder, which also has high levels of antioxidants, has an effect on nitric acid levels, which is good for the cardiovascular system.

Viagra is another compound that has an effect on nitric acid levels; anyone experimenting with cocoa powder could report back any interesting findings. ;-)

eightnine2718281828mu5 said...

For many years, polyphenols and other antioxidants were thought to protect cell constituents against oxidative damage through scavenging of free radicals. However, this concept now appears to be an oversimplified view of their mode of action (23)

Unknown said...

Death is a part of healthy sexual species, and should be respected. Eat what you want, but get out of the way.
The antioxidants which preserve the cells, etc., are keeping new cells from forming and adapting to the new environments. Cancer is an adaptation to living in a preservative world.

"I am not an expert on, well, anything, but I am absolutely sincere."
Once you can fake sincerity, you've got it...

Jason L. said...

It's also worth noting that a lot of the worst carcinogens people are exposed to come from molds (like aflatoxin that can affect peanuts). If preservatives prevent mold from growing in our food, then they'll help prevent cancer.