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An Apple A Day: The Myths, Misconceptions, and Truths About the Foods We Eat Hardcover – January 13, 2009
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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From Publishers Weekly
Widely known in Canada from his Montreal Gazette column, and work with the Discovery Channel, Schwarcz (Let Them Eat Flax) is an entertaining guide through the tangle of conflicting research studies, advertising claims, special interest groups, age-old myths and popular opinion that make diet a cloudy subject. In short chapters he aims his microscope at such highly touted foods as tomatoes, acai berries, curry and soy; additives like nitrites, artificial sweeteners, vitamins and fluoride; contaminants including pesticides, hormones, trans fats and dioxins; and what, for him, are suspect fads. Schwarcz contends that while there are no magical foods, a diet of mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains and low-fat dairy products and moderation are key to good health. To help readers make informed choices, he ably cuts through many controversies and will likely stir up a few (he challenges those who condemn milk consumption, espouse detoxification and promote kosher foods, for example). Schwarcz makes learning fun by peppering his text with fascinating facts (coffee contains naturally occurring carcinogens, and apples have formaldehyde). More importantly, he leaves readers with a rational framework for evaluating the complex nature of foods and how they affect health. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
“Readers will not need a PhD in chemistry to follow along; Schwarcz wisely limits technical terms to the minimum while adequately explaining the chemistry involved in digestion.”
Rachel M. Minkin
“… an entertaining guide through the tangle of conflicting research studies, advertising claims, special interest groups, age-old myths and popular opinion that make diet a cloudy subject. … leaves readers with a rational framework for evaluating the complex nature of foods and how they affect health.”
"An Apple a Day hashes out hype and irrational panic one chemical compound and one foodstuff at a time. Between ubiquitous cover-ups and endemic hysteria about what’s in our food and our bloodstreams, there’s nothing more helpful than a clear-speaking and apparently non-aligned food chemist who is willing to identify the real risks and defuse the rampant bad information out there. Addressing allegations that companies like Monsanto and Novartis intentionally poison consumers, Schwarcz urges skepticism, because “no company wants to undermine its existence or its profits by marketing a dangerous substance.” Discounting unfounded rumors, Schwarcz identifies a handful of foodstuffs and practices that should cause real concern. The most serious are the rampant use of antibiotics in livestock and indications that trans fats may do serious harm to people’s memories."
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Those are the words author Joe Schwarcz uses at the conclusion of his book which is jam-packed with the latest data, debates, and drama about the foods (and chemicals <gasp!> therein) we eat. His book is indeed a full-course meal...and then some.
First, he leads us through a tour of naturally occurring substances in our food supply, including flax, fiber, omega-3 fats, antioxidants, flavanols, vitamins, and minerals. Next, he presents the most controversial issues related to the manipulation of our food supply: fortifying with iron and fluoride; sweetening with natural and artificial sweeteners; manipulating genes in our food; and preserving with sulphites, viruses, and radiation. Then, he takes us up close and personal with the contaminants in our food supply, including pesticides, hormones, BPA, PCBs, and dioxins. And, finally, Joe leads us through the nutritional hype surrounding some of the latest nutritional fads such as goji juice, detoxing, DHEA, and green tea.
It's likely your head will be spinning after consuming all the nutritional chemistry, controversy and and commentary that Joe serves up. (And, to answer his question above: yes, it is a lot to digest!) He does do an impressive job in guiding us through the maze of myths, misconceptions and truths about the foods we eat, but--as food science is rarely a conclusive one--be prepared to be confused at times. Fortunately, Joe offers relief at the end of the book, to help us digest it all:
"There is more to life than worrying about every morsel of food we put into our mouths. What matters is the overall diet...When you carefully scrutinize the scientific studies that are being rolled out almost on a daily basis, most amount to no more than tinkering with the basic nutritional principles we have tried to lay down: eat mostly foods based on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products, and don't overeat."
In a series of bite-sized chapters (3-5 pages), Schwarcz takes us through some of the topics he's encountered and researched in his role as a science commentator over the last 30 (?) years. As such, I would suggest that the topics are a little skewed to the supplements side - there are many chapters devoted to particular dietary supplements with supposedly miraculous effects (to cure cancer, lose weight, etc.). These claims are usually laughably easy to dismiss because the "evidence" of their efficacy is non-existent. The book is much more interesting when he tackles issues of pesticides, teflon, and artificial sweeteners. Generally, the scientific literature shows that the amounts of these items in an average diet are so small as to be non-issues. Sure, they cause cancer - in amounts millions of times as large as humans take in. And these amounts are far less than the naturally occurring carcinogens that we are exposed to automatically because we breath and eat food. This leads to the primary thesis of the book, with which no nutritional expert could argue: eat a good balanced diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.
This thesis is proven again and again throughout the book, and the primary problem of this book is its repetative nature. In trying to keep each chapter reasonably autonomous, and because the conclusions are virtually the same each time, the author cannot possibly make the book entertaining for long reading times. It's more of a "pick up, read a bit, put down for a couple days" kind of book.
Other reviewers have objected to the lack of footnotes. This is a valid criticism; I suppose it was a conscious choice on the author's and editor's parts (for ease of readability). Certainly I would have prefered if the studies he cites were more clearly referenced. (Rise and Fall of the Third Reich had thousands of references, so it's insulting to think that the reader would pass on buying the book simply because they are in there, especially as this book's raison d'etre is to bring to the public the objective scientific conclusions on the nutritional questions raised in the book). I would add the criticism that two hot-button nutritional issues are not dealt with. (1) Bisphenol-A, a monomer used in polycarbonate synthesis, has been banned by Health Canada and others, but ruled safe (in the amounts present in polycarbonate drinking and storage vessels) by the FDA. Based on the number of articles I see (in newspapers and even the American Chemical Society's magazine), this chemical is perfectly positioned for the Dr. Joe treatment, and I find it curious that it is omitted. (2) Perhaps because this movement has only gained real traction since the book was written it was not included, but the "eat local" mantra is in conflict with the "eat lots of variety" mantra espoused by nutritionists and featured prominently in the book. If you live in a breadbasket (e.g. California), you can have a widely varied diet throughout the year. If you live in a northern clime (e.g. northern Minnesota, most of Canada), you will not have access to locally grown fresh fruit and veggies for most of the year. Eating as Dr. Schwarcz suggests would leave you with an enormous carbon footprint due to the transportation and refrigeration costs of moving the food from southern locations.
It is also curious that Dr. Joe never mentions the placebo effect. Some remedies are effective because the patient thinks they will be effective. Sure, double-blind studies take this into account (people receiving the placebo and the test compound are both going to benefit from the placebo effect, so any additional effect in the test group will be due to the efficacy of the test compound), but anecdotal "evidence" is easy to accumulate by charletons, and these testamonials can certainly be true! If you're one of the lucky ones whose cancer goes into remission at the same time as you started drinking three litres of acai juice a day, you will certainly "know" that the acai juice caused the remission. So it's my unfortunate conclusion that Dr. Joe is singing to the choir with this book - those with a scientific/statistical background will be convinced, but we were convinced anyways. Those who are the statistical outliers will still be convinced of their positions, and the charletans will continue to make money off of them.