April 19, 2018

Q&A: Dr. Joe Schwarcz

By Rachel M. Minkin

In his recent An Apple a Day, chemist Joel Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, separates the wheat from the whack nutritional theories being disseminated by the media. As Americans try to lose those holiday pounds, they would benefit from eschewing the celebrity diet books of the moment for his accessible insights on the nature of molecules in food. It’s empowering science for the people, complete with a muckraking angle, as Schwarcz isn’t afraid to expose four of the biggest health quacks (hello, Kevin Trudeau).

An Apple a DayYou’ve made an award-winning career out of teaching chemistry to the public. Why do you seek, in the words of the Office of Science and Society web site, to “demystify…science for the public, the media and students”?
This is the age of information overload. Virtually every day we are accosted by new findings. Some of the information seems contradictory, and what appears correct today often turns out wrong tomorrow. Charlatans, who are not encumbered by the need to follow the scientific method, mount their soapboxes and loudly promote their wares, while scientists often stand by idly. The public is left confused. Much of the confusion stems from a lack of understanding of chemistry, the science that studies matter and the changes it undergoes. That, of course, encompasses virtually everything. A sound understanding of what molecules are all about and what they can and cannot do mows a path through the confusion.

In your experience, what are the most common misconceptions about nutrition?
There are those who think that what we eat doesn’t matter and those who think that all problems can be addressed by nutrition. Both are wrong. Nutrition is important, but it is only one factor that governs health. There are no simple solutions to complex problems. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually turns out to be so. The people who hawk Noni juice, Goji juice, acai juice, or whatever happens to be the cure-all of the moment are out to lunch. So are the ones who worry about whatever is the toxin du jour, be it aspartame or MSG or phthalates leaching out of plastics. Life should not be a continuous evaluation of every morsel that enters the mouth. An overall balanced diet allows for a few excursions into the tunnel of nutritional horrors.

Unfortunately, no matter how much we learn about nutrition, it will never become simple. In fact, probably more complicated. How can it not be so when a single meal is composed of thousands of different compounds and is plunked into the most complex machine on the face of the earth, the human body?

So in Apple, I certainly cannot offer simple solutions to complex problems…that is in the domain of the Kevin Trudeaus of this world. But I do offer some interesting science to help people make up their minds about some confusing issues. I hope.

What is the simplest, quickest thing a person can do to improve his or her health when it comes to food?
Curb soft drinks, potato chips, french fries, and count the number of servings of fruits and vegetables a day—should be at least seven.

Your book has four sections, including “Manipulating Our Food Supply” and “Contaminants in Our Food Supply.” Do you see yourself adding to or subtracting from these sections? Will this information change?
Science is basically a search for the truth and is a continuously evolving discipline. As new facts come to light, theories are altered. I don’t think there will be dramatic changes in the nutrition arena, but there will be some fine tuning. We may be better able to define what an ideal diet is, although it’s unlikely there will be a simple formula that works for everyone. But I doubt that we will be changing our minds about the benefits of eating whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Woody Allen’s classic Sleeper will remain humorous science fiction. By the same token, we will not wake up one day to find out that chocolate cake is health food, but we may learn more about the benefits of dark chocolate.

Your chapter “Whom To Believe?” targets four doctors spreading misinformation about artificial sweeteners. How can readers separate nutritional fact from fiction when hearing it from people called “doctor”?
There is no easy answer here. Through experience and involvement in science, one learns which sources are reliable and which are not. Basically, our information should come from peer-reviewed scientific literature, not from hearsay or anecdote. Unfortunately, the quacks are often allowed free reign because reputable scientists cannot be bothered to wage war against what they perceive is utter nonsense. That’s why Kevin Trudeau [of Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You To Know About fame] has had such a successful run—at least until now. Finally, the Federal Trade Commission has clipped the wings of this scoundrel and fined him $5 million. But I fear he will fly again. It is hard to keep the charlatans grounded.

In researching Apple, what information, if any, surprised you the most?
My book wasn’t written by researching a field that was new to me. I have been involved in this area for over 30 years, so one witnesses a slow evolution, not dramatic changes. Dramatic changes and surprises are for the tabloids, not for people who closely follow the scientific literature and adhere to the scientific method.

Besides your own writings, what other authors would you suggest to readers interested in nutrition and food chemistry?
Certainly, Harold McGee [On Food and Cooking] is excellent, as is Walter Willett [Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy]. Stephen Barrett’s Quackwatch.org should be on everyone’s list of favorites.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library Journal, Stronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.