Few childhood rituals are as memorable as a Saturday morning meal with my grandparents. Like most members of the Greatest Generation, my grandfather ate eggs and bacon for breakfast, slathered his toast with real butter and drank coffee with every meal. My grandmother made sure we never went away hungry. Both lived well into their 90s.
Today, I can scarcely bite into bacon, crack an egg or put a knife to butter without feeling a pang of guilt. Not to mention my compulsion to drink eight glasses of water a day, fill my shopping bags with organic food and snatch sugary treats from the grasps of my children. And don't get me started on the penance I pay at the gym for eating a late-night bowl of ice cream.
But what if I have it all wrong? What if we all do? If you've ever wondered whether there's any truth to the long-held beliefs that replay in your head as you pick up a menu, grab items from the grocery store or fix yourself a midnight snack, read on. We're investigating 10 food falsehoods so ingrained in American culture that we don't always know how they got there. Usually a dash of science got mixed up with "common sense" –- like the myth on our next page.
Dye No. 40, also known as Allura red, is the most prevalent dye used in food manufacturing in the United States and is an ingredient in everything from nacho-flavored chips and toaster pastries to fresh-cut meat and breakfast cereal. Even foods that are not pink or red, such as marshmallows and vanilla snack cakes, may have Dye No. 40 (or Red 40) in their ingredient line-up. Many of these foods are particularly appealing to children, and some people have suspected that food dyes lead to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Part of the controversy surrounds the fact that food dyes are not a necessary part of food preparation; they are composed of chemicals that aren't essential to a food's taste or texture. Water-soluble artificial dyes, which come in liquid, powder or granule form, are used to reintroduce color removed from foods by processing or cooking. They also change the appearance of foods by making them more appealing to the eye [source: Health].
In September 2010, however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) analyzed 35 years of scientific studies and affirmed that color additives don't cause ADHD, though they may increase hyperactivity in some children who already have it. In 2011, the FDA met to discuss the matter again and concluded there was still insufficient evidence of a link between food dyes and ADHD, though they did call for more research. Meanwhile, a British study gave children two drinks with a mix of dyes and then observed them for hyperactivity. Parents noticed an increase in this behavior, but teachers and outside observers did not [source: Fulton].
Still, in Europe, product labels now must list any artificial dyes with a warning that they may cause hyperactivity. There's a movement afoot in the U.S. to make the switch from chemical-based dyes to those made from natural elements, such as vegetables or spices. Food industry experts say these are more costly and less stable [source: Fulton].
It's an adage so widely known, it's nearly a joke: When premenstrual syndrome (PMS) strikes, women reach for chocolate. But they may think it's just a little pick-me-up without any real scientific benefit. Even 10 or 15 years ago, women's magazines advised that sweets would actually make premenstrual women's moods worse.
However, studies show chocolate really does ease PMS symptoms, such as anxiety, anger, mental fogginess or temporary sadness. Researchers even mapped out a timeline to illustrate chocolate's effects. The texture and taste of chocolate get the ball rolling, but even as the immediacy of this pleasure fades, another positive effect takes hold: chocolate suppresses feelings of fatigue and irritation, sometimes for several hours. Chocolate also contains trace minerals, including magnesium, which can become depleted during menstruation [source: Fit Day].
How does chocolate work its wonders? Researchers propose it has to do with chocolate's ability to set off mood-altering chemicals, like serotonin, in the brain. Serotonin is often low in the week before a period. A study at MIT found chocolate and carbohydrates were a particularly powerful combination. When the study's premenstrual subjects ate chocolate brownies, for example, the brain's serotonin levels soared. Women who aren't chocolate fans can still lighten the mood by snacking on carbs, such as oatmeal or yogurt, to downplay the body's reaction to PMS [source: Wurtman].
If you don't drink eight glasses of water a day, you'll struggle under the weight of dehydration, a malady that causes everything from mental confusion to joint pain to facial wrinkles, or so the conventional wisdom goes. The "eight glasses of water a day" adage is such widespread advice, it holds a spot between "eat your vegetables" and "you need eight hours of sleep a night."
But is chugging eight glasses of water a day really good advice? It all depends on your activity level and age, and the climate where you live. Truth is, "eight glasses of water a day" isn't a hard-and-fast guideline for minimum hydration. Current research contends you only need half that amount, about 32 ounces (about 1 liter), to stay hydrated. What you really need to focus on is whether you are replacing the fluids you lose through sweating and urinating. For example, if you spend your lunch breaks running a 5K instead of sitting at your desk, you'll need to drink more water throughout the day.
Plus, you don't necessarily need water to replenish your body. Juice and milk are two options. Even coffee, tea and soft drinks -- long believed to have a dehydrating effect on the body because of the caffeine they contain -- are about two-thirds retained by the body and contribute to daily liquid intake.
For many parents, it makes perfect sense. Give your kid a cupcake (or two) and in about 15 minutes, you can watch them bounce off the walls. It's a fact of life, one that most parents have come to accept: Sugary treats lend a free-for-all motif to birthday parties, sleepovers and similar events. But is sugar really to blame as the link between children and an upswing in wild behavior at fun group gatherings?
If you just mentally pointed at a fork full of frosting, you're mistaken.
A number of studies show there isn't a biological link between children's behavior and their consumption of sugar. Unless you count parents, that is. Turns out, sugar has a perception problem. When children dine on sugary snacks and then somersault across a room, it's just as likely the cause of the gymnastics outbreak -- or any active spike in behavior -- will be misinterpreted by parents. As adults reflect on what led up to a child's behavior, they're apt to hit upon a sugar-eating incident rather than the party itself.
Parents have been putting the blame on the wrong culprit. In fact, experts say scientific studies do not show any link between the food that's ingested and behavior. Researchers contend children are hyped up because of the circumstances surrounding the snack, not the snack itself. For example, when a child eats candy and becomes excitable at a holiday party, it's probably the party and not the candy that is the cause [source: Warner].
Organic foods can be expensive, sometimes costing nearly twice as much as their non-organic counterparts, yet many of us cling to one thought when shelling out the extra dough: Organic foods are better.
Not when it comes to nutrition. Mineral for mineral, vitamin for vitamin and protein for protein, organic foods stack up just the same as non-organic foods. In 2012, researchers at Stanford University and the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System reviewed more than 200 studies comparing nutritional levels in organic and conventional foods, as well as the health of people who ate both types. What they found is that plant and animal foods have the same amount of vitamins, no matter how they're grown. The only possible exception resides in the dairy section, where organic milk, cheese and yogurt were sometimes reported to have elevated omega-3 levels.
If you continue to cling to your free-range sensibilities, take heart: Organic food does have one overriding benefit. If it's on the menu, you won't be as likely to ingest antibiotic-resistant bacteria or pesticides because of the animal-raising and produce-growing methods. In fact, one study detected pesticide levels on about one-third of the non-organic produce tested, as opposed to 7 percent of the organic produce examined. However, even conventional foods rarely exceeded the U.S. government's allowable level of pesticides [source: Pittman].
Cookies before bed, sandwiches at midnight, a handful of chips when you come home after a party. Nearly everyone knows these late-night snacks can pack on the pounds. Even Oprah says she doesn't eat after 7:30 in the evening [source: Oprah]. But does eating late really cause weight gain?
The perception is that eating before bed (or during a midnight voyage to the kitchen island) is a major culprit when it comes to weight gain. The food takes longer to digest, the calories are less likely to be used as energy and, therefore, a larger waistline (or bottom line) is lurking in your future. Fortunately, say researchers, this simply isn't the case. The body's metabolism never stops working, even during sleep. And, as for calories, they have the same effect whether you eat them at noon or midnight. If you eat too many calories you'll gain weight, no matter what time of day you eat them.
Researchers do recommend eating a big breakfast, though. By power-loading your calorie intake with a nutritious (and sizable) breakfast, you simply won't feel as hungry the rest of the day. And this can lead to smaller portion sizes and more nutritional food choices, a change in behavior that could impact weight more than the timing of meals and snacks [source: University of Arkansas Medical Sciences].
There was a time when families gathered fresh eggs from the chicken coop or cooked them almost every day. Then eggs developed a risky reputation. The widespread thinking went something like this: Eggs contain cholesterol; cholesterol clogs arteries and contributes to heart disease. Therefore, egg consumption equals heart attacks.
Not so, say researchers. While high cholesterol does indeed contribute to heart disease, there isn't a direct link between eating eggs and poor heart health. About 75 percent of the cholesterol released into the bloodstream is produced by the liver after it processes foods that are high in saturated fat, not foods that contain cholesterol.
One egg contains about 200 milligrams of cholesterol. This means that eating an egg a day is well within the bounds of the American Heart Association's recommendation that we not eat more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol daily. Even people who have been placed on a low-cholesterol diet are able to eat a couple of eggs a week [source: Dalessio]. In fact, some cholesterol is important for keeping cell walls strong and manufacturing vitamin D [source: Readers Digest]. The truth has simply gotten scrambled.
It's an easy visual reference that shows whether your dinner plate is a healthy one: The brighter, more vibrantly colored the foods, the better they are for you -- especially when it comes to vegetables.
While it's true that vibrant vegetables like kale contain greater levels of vitamin K and other nutrients than their paler counterparts, like iceberg lettuce, it isn't a hard-and-fast rule [source: Erway]. Many pigment-challenged vegetables get a bad rap. The truth is, some phytochemicals that make vibrant vegetables good for you are also present in pale or white vegetables because some phytochemicals are colorless [source: Produce for Better Health Foundation].
Celery, for example, is so well known for its soft and soothing color that it's a popular moniker for interior paint colors and decorator fabrics. But don't assume this understated veggie is a weakling when it comes to nutrition. Celery is a nutritional powerhouse packed with vitamins, calcium, and phthalides that can lower blood pressure. Cabbage is another example of a pale vegetable that can hold its own against bell peppers and green beans. Cabbage is high in vitamin C and has been connected to a lower cancer risk. So have onions, which are rich in compounds that help prevent heart disease. And cauliflower, despite its lack of color, has lots of isothiocyanates, indoles and vitamin C to help fight cancer [source: Nutrition and You].
It's advice that's been circulating for years: Six small meals are better for you than three big ones -- especially if you're trying to lose weight. The "six small meals" method of dropping pounds is based on the idea that by eating more frequently throughout the day, you'll boost your metabolism and burn more calories. Some take it a step further by insisting eating smaller meals mean you'll never feel hungry, which makes it easier to control the urge to overeat (or eat all the wrong things). But is grazing on snacks really better for you than sitting down to three squares a day?
Nope. According to findings published in the British Journal of Nutrition, obese participants who were assigned three low-calorie meals a day lost as much weight as those who ate the same meals divided into six equally spaced portions. There weren't any differences between hunger symptoms or appetite control, either [source: O'Connor].
Calories are calories, regardless of when they're consumed. You may actually see better weight loss results by doing small bouts of exercise six times a day than having the same schedule for your meals. For example, if you spend 10 minutes exercising throughout the day, you'll boost your metabolism more often than if you devote a full hour at a time [source: Leong].
Olive oil is good fat, and good for you. Douse your salads with it. Cook your vegetables in it. And take comfort in the knowledge that you're doing the right thing for your health, especially your heart health.
Not so fast.
While it's true the high content of monounsaturated fats in olive oil is better for your body than saturated fats from animal-derived products like butter, olive oil is not necessarily heart-healthy. Why? The clue is right there in the name: oil.
Oil, even the kind that's pressed from olives, is still fat. Fourteen grams of fat per tablespoon, in fact. And fat is rarely, if ever, good for your arteries [source: Novick]. Like other oils, olive oil has 120 calories per tablespoon, so calorie for calorie, it isn't even an ideal source of its other chief attribute: heart-healthy polyphenols. For example, crunching 55 calories worth of lettuce will net 150 milligrams of polyphenols. You'd need to eat 600 calories (or 5 tablespoons) worth of olive oil to gain the same effect. And olive oil doesn't offer additional vitamins and minerals the way lettuce does [source: Fuhrman].
Plus, if olive oil is heated to more than 400 degrees F or 205 degrees C (the temperature at which would you roast olive oil-coated vegetables) some of its fat molecules can transform into trans fats, and those are definitely not good for your heart [source: Katz].
Bottom line: It's better to use olive oil instead of (not in addition to) other oils, but it should always be in moderation [source: Mayo Clinic].
Two researchers have made protein powder out of carbon dioxide, water and microbes. Learn more at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Complete Falsehoods about Food
Before researching this article, I was one of the many who believed a number of food falsehoods -- eight glasses of water a day, no eating at midnight -- were reality. In fact, some of them have been part of my daily ritual for years. I'm not entirely sure I'll stop counting how many ounces of water I sip each day or that I'll stop relying on olive oil to be the better cooking choice, but the research I've uncovered has definitely changed my perspective. And every time I add pale-colored vegetables to my plate, I'll probably give myself a little nod, knowing they're just as good (sometimes better) for me than their brightly colored cousins.
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- Fulton, April. "FDA Probes Link Between Food Dyes, Kids' Behavior." (Nov. 1, 2012) http://www.npr.org/2011/03/30/134962888/fda-probes-link-between-food-dyes-kids-behavior
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- Katz, David. "Can Olive Oil Stand the Heat?" September 2009. (Nov. 1, 2012) Oprah. http://www.oprah.com/health/Nutrition-Facts-About-Olive-Oil-Health-Advice-from-Dr-Katz
- Leong, Kristie. "Why a Short Workout is More Effective." Nov. 6, 2008. (Nov. 6, 2012) Health Mad. http://healthmad.com/fitness/why-a-short-workout-is-more-effective/
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- O'Connor, Anahad. "Myth Busting: Are Six Small Meals Better Than Three Big Ones?" March 24, 2010. (Nov. 6, 2012) Sun Sentinel. http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2010-03-24/news/sfl-meals-myth-032310_1_meals-metabolism-calories
- Oprah. "How Oprah Does it All." September 2001. (Nov. 2, 2012) http://www.oprah.com/spirit/How-Oprah-Does-It-All-Women-with-Drive
- Pittman, Genevra. "Organic Food No More Nutritious Than Non-Organic." NBC. Sept. 4, 2012. (Nov. 1, 2012) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/48888214/ns/health-diet_and_nutrition/t/organic-food-no-more-nutritious-non-organic-study-finds/
- Produce for Better Health Foundation. "Phytochemical Info Center." (Nov. 6, 2012) http://www.pbhfoundation.org/about/res/pic/faqs/#faq2
- Stefanov, Sebastian. "The Truth About Eggs." (Nov. 1, 2012) Ask Men. http://www.askmen.com/sports/foodcourt_60/66b_eating_well.html
- University of Arkansas Medical Sciences. "Does Eating Late at Night Make You Fat?" (Nov. 1, 2012) http://www.uamshealth.com/?id=10937&sid=1
- Warner, Jennifer. "The Sugar-Hyperactivity Myth." Web MD. Jan. 31, 2005. (Nov. 1, 2012) http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=52516
- Wurtman, Judith. "Chocolate, Depression and PMS." Huffington Post. Aug. 27, 2010. (Nov. 1, 2012) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-j-wurtman-phd/chocolate-depression-and-_b_672556.html