Food is wonderful. It tastes good, fuels our bodies, and gives us a great excuse to bond with friends and family.
But because of food’s importance in all cultures, and our health – you are what you eat, the old adage goes – it’s a minefield for misleading and sometimes hysterical claims.
Some eating-related myths, misconceptions, and inaccuracies have been passed down through the ages, though the internet age has given rise to puzzling new falsehoods and diversions.
To help combat food fictions, we’ve rounded up and corrected dozens of the most shocking food “facts” in this list. (If you’re hungry for more myth-busting, peruse our list of 101 science myths.)
MYTH: There are bugs in your strawberry Frappuccino.
This one is no longer true.
Before April 2012, Starbucks’ strawberry Frappucino contained a dye made from the ground-up bodies of thousands of tiny insects, called cochineal bugs (or Dactylopius coccus).
Farmers in South and Central America make a living harvesting – and smashing – the bugs that go into the dye. Their crushed bodies produce a deep red ink that is used as a natural food colouring, which was “called cochineal” red but is now called “carmine colour.”
Starbucks stopped using carmine colour in their strawberry Frappucinos in 2012, and alternatives exist that are made in part from sweet potatoes. But the dye is still used in thousands of other food products – from Nerds candies to grapefruit juice. Not to mention cosmetics, like lovely shades of red lipstick.
MYTH: There’s beaver butt secretions in your vanilla ice cream.
You’ve probably heard that a secretion called castoreum, isolated from the anal gland of a beaver, is used in flavourings and perfumes.
But castoreum is so expensive, at up to $US70 per pound of anal gland (the cost to humanely milk castoreum from a beaver is likely even higher), that it’s unlikely to show up in anything you eat.
In 2011, the Vegetarian Resource Group wrote to five major companies that produce vanilla flavoring and asked if they use castoreum. The answer: According to the Federal Code of Regulations, they can’t. (The FDA highly regulates what goes into vanilla flavoring and extracts.)
It’s equally unlikely you’ll find castoreum in mass-marketed goods, either.
MYTH: Coffee stunts your growth.
In adults, researchers have seen that increased caffeine consumption can very slightly limit calcium absorption, but the impact is so small that a tablespoon of milk will more than adequately offset the effects of a cup of coffee.
Advertising seems to be largely responsible for this myth: Cereal manufacturer named C.W. Post was trying to market a morning beverage called “Postum” as an alternative to coffee, so he ran ads on the “evils” of Americans’ favourite hot beverage, calling it a “nerve poison” that should never be served to children.
MYTH: Sugar and chocolates are aphrodisiacs.
In the mid 19th century – before sugar purportedly caused diabetes or hyperactivity – sugar was thought to ignite sexual desire in women, children, and, more controversially, the poor.
One vintage Kellogg advertisement even claimed “Candies, spices, cinnamon, cloves, peppermint, and all strong essences powerfully excited the genital organs and lead to the [solitary vice].”
So don’t get worked up over sugar. There’s little to no evidence to support the notion that it – or any food, including chocolates – stimulates sexual desire.
MYTH: An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
Apples are packed with vitamin C and fibre, both of which are important to long-term health, but they aren’t all you need.
And if certain viruses or bacteria get into your system, an apple will unfortunately do nothing to protect you.
Go ahead and get that flu shot, even if you eat apples.
MYTH: Milk does a body good!
The US Department of Agriculture tells us that adults should drink three cups of milk a day, mostly for calcium and vitamin D.
Some studies have even shown an association with higher overall mortality, and while that doesn’t mean that milk consumption itself was responsible, it’s certainly not an endorsement.
MYTH: You need to wait an hour after eating to swim or you can cramp and drown.
But there’s no evidence to support this claim.
In fact, many sources say there are no documented cases of anyone ever drowning because they have had a cramp related to swimming with a full stomach.
MYTH: A juice cleanse will detoxify you after an eating binge.
Your body naturally removes harmful chemicals through the liver, kidneys, and gastrointestinal tract – there’s nothing about juice that will hurry that process along.
At best, juicing removes digestion-aiding fibre from fruits and vegetables. Also consider that many sugary fruit juices are as bad for you as sodas.
And while some juices are just fine, they don’t provide anything that you wouldn’t get by eating the whole components instead.
MYTH: Organic food is pesticide-free and more nutritious.
Farmers who grow organic produce are permitted to use chemicals that are naturally derived – and in some cases are actually worse for the environment than their synthetic counterparts. However, pesticide levels on both organic and non-organic foods are so low that they aren’t of concern for consumption, according to the USDA. (A thorough rinse can eliminate most pesticide residues.)
Eating organic food also doesn’t come with any nutritional benefits over non-organic food, according to a review of 98,727 potentially relevant studies.
MYTH: Sugar causes hyperactivity in children.
The myth probably emerged in 1974, when Dr. William Crook wrote a letter to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which published it. “Only in the past three years have I become aware that sugar … is a leading cause of hyperactivity,” the letter stated.
A letter does not include the rigorous scientific research that a paper does, and according to the National Institute of Mental Health: “The idea that refined sugar causes ADHD or makes symptoms worse is popular, but more research discounts this theory than supports it.”
MYTH: Eating chocolate gives you acne.
For one month, scientists fed dozens of people candy bars containing 10 times the usual amount of chocolate, and dozens of others fake chocolate bars.
When they counted the zits before and after each diet, there was “no difference” between the two groups. Neither the chocolate nor the fat seemed to have any effect on acne.
MYTH: Natural sugar like honey is better for you than processed sugar.
That’s because sugar in natural products like fruit and synthetic products like candy is the same: “Scientists would be surprised to hear about the ‘clear superiority’ of honey, since there is a near unanimous consensus that the biological effect of high-fructose corn syrup are essentially the same as those of honey,” professor Alan Levinovitz previously told Business Insider.
The problem is that candy and other related products typically contain more sugar per serving, which means more calories – a difference you should actually be watching out for.
MYTH: Carbonated water isn’t as hydrating as flat water.
Just because water is fizzy and refreshing doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.
In one of many studies that bust this myth, researchers made men bike on several occasions until they sweated off 4% of their body weight – then immediately handed them a drink.
One time the cyclists got flat water, another time carbonated water, yet another sugar water, and during a final trial everyone drank carbonated sugar water.
The results? Carbonation did not make any difference when it came to rehydrating.
MYTH: Mixing energy drinks with alcohol makes you drunker.
Turns out it just energizes you.
The problem is the extra shot of energy can make you feel less intoxicated than you actually are, which might lead you to drink more alcohol than normal.
MYTH: The chemical tryptophan in turkey makes you sleepy.
Who doesn’t love the post-Thanksgiving nap? After all, turkey contains tryptophan – an amino acid that is a component of some of the brain chemicals that help you relax.
But plenty of foods contain tryptophan. Cheddar cheese has even more than turkey, yet cheddar is never pointed out as a sleep-inducing food.
Experts say that instead, the carbs, alcohol, and general size of the turkey-day feast are the cause of those delicious holiday siestas.
MYTH: Yogurt will help put your digestive system back in order.
Yogurt is often marketed as helping digestion and slimming our figure because of probiotics – the idea that “good bacteria” living in the yogurt will shack up in our guts.
Bacteria are well-connected to our metabolism and obesity rates, among other things, so the connection seems logical.
However, we don’t yet understand how the millions of bacteria already in our bodies work together, let alone when yogurt is added into the mix.
This is not to say that yogurt is unhealthy, just that its benefits are oversold. Keep in mind, though, that a lot of yogurt is packed with sugar, which we do know contributes to obesity and other problems – so if you enjoy the dairy product, find some that isn’t full of empty calories.
MYTH: You can cure a hangover by drinking more.
The “hair of the dog” is a myth – a mimosa or Bloody Mary in the morning won’t make you feel better. At best, you’re just prolonging the hangover.
Same goes for coffee after a night of drinking. Like alcohol, coffee is a diuretic, so it will dehydrate your body even more and likely prolong the hangover.
MYTH: Eating ice cream will make your cold worse.
If you’re home sick with a cold, you can totally go ahead and comfort yourself with some ice cream.
The idea that dairy increases mucous production is very fortunately not true, according to researchers and a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, who says “in fact, frozen dairy products can soothe a sore throat and provide calories when you otherwise may not eat.”
MYTH: It takes 7 years for gum to digest if you swallow it.
Gum is mostly indigestible, but the occasional swallowed piece will pass through your intestines and exit the other side, just like anything else you eat that your body doesn’t need and can’t digest.
The only cases where swallowed gum has caused a problem is when that gum is swallowed along with other things that shouldn’t be in your stomach.
Scientific American cites a case where a 4-year-old girl suffered a gastrointestinal blockage – from a wad of gum with four coins inside of it.
MYTH: Sugar is as addictive as heroin.
In the 2009 book “Fat Chance,” the author, Dr. Robert Lustig, claims that sugar stimulates the brain’s reward system the same way that tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, and even heroin does, and therefore must be equally addictive. Lustig even cites studies that show parts of our brain that light-up from a sugary reward are the same parts that get excited for many types of enjoyable activities, from drinking alcohol to having sex.
The problem, however, with these types of scientific studies of the brain is that “In neuroimaging, there is no clear-cut sign of addiction,” Hisham Ziaudden, an eating behavioural specialist, told Levinovitz.
So, scientists don’t know what addiction in the brain looks like, yet, and until that mystery is solved we should not be living in fear from something as fanciful as sugar addiction.
MYTH: Twinkies and McDonald’s burgers last forever.
Any food that has moisture and isn’t frozen can grow microbes that break the food down, packaging or not.
Twinkies are less than optimal to eat after about 25 days on a shelf, and burgers go bad within a day. However, cooked meat patties (McDonald’s or otherwise) are less likely to rot outright if conditions are abnormally dry or cold. But who would eat a weeks-old burger?
MYTH: Brown sugar is healthier than white sugar.
Sugar that’s the colour of dirt doesn’t make it more “natural” or healthier than its white counterpart. The colour comes from a common residual sticky syrup, called molasses.
Brown sugar retains some of that molasses. In fact, brown sugar is mostly white sugar with some molasses – so refining it further would give you white table sugar.
While molasses contains some vitamins and minerals like potassium and magnesium, there is not enough in your standard brown sugar packet that should make you reach for it if you’re trying to eat healthier.
As far as your body is concerned, white and brown sugar are one-in-the-same.
MYTH: Eating a lot of carrots gives you great night vision.
Vitamin A is a major nutrient found in carrots, and it is good for the health of your eyes – especially those with poor vision. But eating a bunch of the vegetables won’t give your all-seeing superpowers.
The myth is thought to have started during as a piece of British propaganda during World War II. That government wanted to secret the existence of a radar technology that allowed its bomber pilots to attack in the night.
MYTH: Chinese food with MSG will make you sick.
The myth that MSG (monosodium glutamate) is bad for you comes from a letter a doctor wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, where he coined the phrase “Chinese restaurant syndrome” and blamed a variety of symptoms including numbness and general weakness on MSG.
Further research has not backed him up.
The scientific consensus according the American Chemical Society is that “MSG can temporarily affect a select few when consumed in huge quantities on an empty stomach, but it’s perfectly safe for the vast majority of people.”
MSG is nothing more than a common amino acid with a sodium atom added. Eating a ton of food or tablespoons full of the salt could cause the general malaise attributed to the flavour enhancer, and the placebo effect is more than strong enough to account for the negative effects sometimes associated with MSG.
MYTH: Everyone should drink eight glasses of water a day.
In healthy people, researchers have not found any connection between fluid intake and kidney disease, heart disease, sodium levels, or skin quality.
But water is a calorie-free alternative to other beverages (especially sugary ones like soda or sports drinks), and people who drink water instead of those beverages consume fewer calories overall.
A good rule is to drink when you’re thirsty – you don’t need to count the glasses.
MYTH: Eating before drinking keeps you sober.
Eating before drinking does help your body absorb alcohol, but it only delays the alcohol entering your bloodstream, it doesn’t restrict it.
Your body absorbs the alcohol more slowly after a big meal, so eating before drinking can help limit the severity of your hangover. Eating a lot after drinking, however, won’t do much to help your hangover.
MYTH: Eating food within 5 seconds of dropping it on the floor is safe.
It’s the worst when something you really wanted to eat falls on the floor. But if you grab it in five seconds, it’s OK, right?
The five-second-rule isn’t a real thing. Bacteria can contaminate a food within milliseconds.
Mythbusting tests show that wet foods attract more bacteria than dry foods, but there’s no “safe duration.” Instead, safety depends on how clean the surface you dropped the food on is.
Whether you eat it or not after that is up to you, but if the people that walk on that floor are also walking around New York City, for example, we wouldn’t recommend it.
MYTH: Eating asparagus will give you cancer.
Scientists in 2018 discovered that a known compound in asparagus, called asparagine, appears to fuel tumour growth in mice with a tough-to-treat form of breast cancer.
While the study may tempt you to cut asparagus from your diet, the truth is a bit more complicated – and banal.
First, our own bodies produce asparagine. Second, very few mouse studies lead to the discovery of meaningful effects for people. This is because the experimental dosages or treatments are often extreme to search for any effect at all, and furthermore mice are rodents, not primates (like humans).
The reality is we don’t know enough yet about tumour growth and its possible link to asparagine. But if it’s present at all, the effect is likely very small.
If you’re concerned about asparagus, you’re better off cutting sugar from your diet. Consuming it has also been linked to cancer growth in mice as well, plus many other ailments in humans.
MYTH: Children who drink soda are at a greater risk of becoming obese.
In “Fed Up,” a documentary film that probes the supposed causes of America’s obesity epidemic, you hear the alarming statistic that “One soda a day increases a child’s chance of obesity by 60%.”
Authors of the study that this statistic comes from actually say their findings “cannot prove causality” – but that’s not what sugar-shaming movie producers would have you think.
Drinking too much calorie-loaded soda is likely unhealthy, but it’s not the sole factor driving a rise in childhood obesity.
The CDC advises parents to do what they can to protect against obesity by encouraging healthy lifestyle habits that include healthy eating and exercise, both of which will likely do more for a child’s waistline than trying to completely cut sugar.
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