Majoring in the Minors

Covering “agricultural issues” is a pretty random grab bag of loosely-related topics. At present, I’m reading up on issues as varied and interwoven as dairy consumption in India, recent research on intermittent caloric restriction, and African Swine Fever. Two such random topics got me thinking over the weekend about how we, particularly in the developed world, get caught up in fads and trends such that we end up focusing on precisely the wrong things.

Topic number oneHow coconut oil went from health food to “poison”.

This piece at Vox details how coconut oil went from just an ingredient to a darling of the cleanse-loving readers at Goop, to getting lambasted as a “poison” by a university researcher in a now-viral quote.

Over the past 10 years or so, coconut oil has become a mainstay as both a food and a personal care product. Goop mentions it in at least 168 articles, even going so far as to recommend it as a lubricant for sex. It’s also been recommended in the mainstream media for everything from cooking to skin care and even oil pulling, a technique involving swishing the stuff around in your mouth like a mouthwash for cleansing. It’s become a darling of the so-called clean eating movement.

But a professor just declared that “coconut oil is pure poison” and “one of the worst foods you can eat.” Karin Michels, an adjunct epidemiology professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the director of the Institute for Prevention and Tumor Epidemiology at the University of Freiburg in Germany, made this statement during a lecture in German in July.

Video of the Michels comment has crossed the one-million-view mark on YouTube, and Vox is just one of dozens of outlets to have picked up the juicy quote and run with it as a headline.

It’s tempting to go off at a tangent here about how Goop is one of the best examples of the “First World Problems” I talk about, but I’ll stay on topic for the moment.

Modern Americans (and citizens in Western nations generally) have a number of diet-related health issues, most related to the “obesity epidemic.” Enter so-called superfoods and pseudo diets like the “BulletProof Diet,” promoted as virtual silver bullets, guaranteed to cure fits, warts and freckles, coughs, colds and runny noses. For people (like me) who struggled with their weight, these trends and headlines are like catnip.

I didn’t personally jump on the coconut oil bandwagon, namely because melting a couple of tablespoons into my morning coffee made the coffee more or less undrinkable. A number of my friends have espoused the benefits of coconut oil, however, and the “poison” comment was understandably upsetting to them.

Topic number two: Agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

The graphic, based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, points out the reality that agriculture in general, and animal agriculture in specific, add very little to the overall picture of global greenhouse gas emissions. This flies in the face of propaganda like “meatless Monday” and other crusades to convince Americans that abandoning meat, milk and eggs is somehow a noble environmental endeavor.

Dr. Place points out that fossil fuels – particularly those we use to fuel our automobiles and airplanes – are the key factor in global GHG emissions. Foregoing meat is not only a poor dietary choice, it’s also not going to matter one whit when it comes to saving the planet, so to speak.

Making such a dietary change, like hopping on the coconut oil bandwagon, are prime examples of “majoring in the minors.”

The moral of the story? The next time you see a dietary trend or fad, particularly if it’s backed by Gwyneth Paltrow, Dr. Oz or anyone connected to the animal rights movement, be very skeptical. Chances are, it’s nothing more than good, old-fashioned snake oil.

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