Friday, February 28, 2014

Some Foods Are Naturally Dangerous

Unknown anime girl indulges in New World cuisine.
There was an incident on the very enjoyable British sitcom Doc Martin wherein some patient of his had been taking some herb or another recommended by a "holistic healer" and had made himself sick with it.  He told the doctor that it couldn't be the herb that made him sick because it was "natural." That seems so obviously goofy an idea to some of us that it's only the stuff of comedy, but, actually, it's not obvious at all to lots of people.

Like many fallacies, it's an overdoing of a basically sound idea. If it's natural, it's been around a long time, and therefore it's not likely to harm us in an unexpected way. That morphs into the idea that all natural things are safe — forgetting the "unexpected" part — and that therefore, in another lapse of logic, all artificial things are not safe.

Clearly, new artificial things might not be safe, so caution is called for. But of course we've been consuming artificial things for millennia. Most food plants have been modified beyond recognition by farmers over the years.

But it's not the artificiality so much as it is the newness.  Greg Cochran, with tongue firmly in cheek, warns us Oldworlders about the hazards of Newworldish grub. From his blog HERE.

Death by Chocolate

I’ve been seeing some silly talk about the perils of GMO food here on this blog, but of course there’s much more of that out in the world.
They’re full of it, of course, but that hardly means that there’s nothing to worry about. The problem is that people have been worrying about the wrong things.
The question is, what are people adapted to eating?  That’s a big part of it, anyhow. If your ancestors were dining on a certain food for thousands of years, you will deal with it better than someone with no such ancestry.  You may be resistant to toxins in that food. You might be less likely to overindulge in it, if that’s a problem (C2H6O).  If it made up a big fraction of the ancestral diet and is short on some key molecule, your biochemistry may  be better at coping with that shortage (selection on an ergothioneine transporter).  If it had novel nutrients, or an unusual mix, you may be better than average at making use of that nutrient (amylase copy number, lactase persistence).
But if your ancestors never encountered this particular food,  you won’t have any specific adaptations to it.
So…   people need to worry about American crops, that nobody in the  Old World could possibly have encountered before Columbus.  These food don’t just differ from old-variant wheat in a couple of molecules – they’re different in many ways.  Sure, Amerindians tolerate them, but they’ve had thousands of years to adapt.  You haven’t.  Since those foods differ in many,many molecules from anything your ancestors ever tasted. you don’t have that adaptive shield.  It’s not whether that food is ‘natural’ – hell, poison ivy and hemlock are ‘natural’.
So, it would be hardly be surprising if some small fraction of Old World-types had some problems with potatoes or tomatoes [love apples!].   Maybe you should worry about peanuts.  Cassava’s full of cyanide. Green peppers – obviously you already have a death wish.  Chewing gum, vanilla, maple syrup, sunflower seeds – are they really safe?
And above all – no chocolate.

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