From artificial sweeteners to potatoes, a lot of harmless products get an unfairly bad rap. Here are some, along with a healthy dose of science.
I'm used to the shaming look I get from my peers when I crack open a can of sugar-free Red Bull. The questions — and judgment — never end. "That stuff'll kill you," someone said to me the other day, shaking his head. "So many chemicals!" was what I heard last week.
Truth be told, Red Bull (at least the sugar-free kind) isn't all that terrible for you. Besides having only 10 calories and no sugar, it has only 80 milligrams of caffeine, about a third of the amount in a tall Starbucks drip coffee. As far as its other ingredients — namely B vitamins and taurine — go, scientific studies have found both to be safe.
But my favorite source of caffeine isn't the only harmless food or drink that gets a bad rap. Here are some of the rest, along with the science behind their safety.
The myth: As more and more of your friends go gluten-free, you may wonder: Is there something to this latest diet craze? Is gluten intolerance a thing? Is it getting more common?
Why it's bogus: Only about 1% of people worldwide have celiac disease, the rare genetic disorder that makes people intolerant to gluten, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. For most of the rest of us, this doughy, chewy ingredient is simply how it tastes: delicious!
The myth: The massive amounts of cholesterol in eggs will translate to a massive amount of cholesterol in your veins.
Why it's bogus: Even though eggs are high in cholesterol (a single egg packs roughly 185 mg), eating them likely won't translate into higher blood cholesterol for you. The first studies that suggested that were done with rabbits, as my colleague Kevin Loria reported. So go ahead, pop a perfectly poached egg on that avocado toast. You know you want to.
The myth: Caffeine stunts your growth and messes with your health.
Why it's bogus: According to the Mayo Clinic, the average adult can safely consume up to 400 mg of caffeine daily. Most standard cups of coffee contain between 90 and 120 mg. So if you're limiting yourself to under four cups of joe a day, you should be relatively in the clear. Still, some java packs more of a punch than others. A 12-ounce "tall" cup of Starbucks drip coffee, for example, has about 260 mg of caffeine — putting you well over the daily dose after two cups.
The myth: Fizzy water is all the rage these days, showing up in grocery-store aisles in flavors like coconut or watermelon. But many people worry the bubbles cause kidney stones, leach calcium from your bones, and even strip the enamel from your teeth.
Why it's bogus: The bubbly stuff is just as good for you as plain water, Jennifer McDaniel, a registered dietitian and certified specialist in sports dietetics, told my colleague Dina Spector.
"Carbonated or sparkling water is made by dissolving carbon dioxide in water, creating carbonic acid," Spector wrote. "This process just adds bubbles — it does not add sugar, calories, or caffeine. Tonic water, club soda, and mineral water are all types of carbonated water, but these have added sodium, vitamins, or sweeteners, so it's important to read the label."
The myth: Fatty foods like avocados and olive oil will make you fat.
Why it's bogus: Although it makes intuitive sense, this myth is not borne by scientific research. A recent look at the studies behind the dietary guidelines that suggested we cut back on fat found that there wasn't evidence to support those rules in the first place. In the book "Eat Fat, Get Thin," Mark Hyman, director of the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Functional Medicine, talks about how he incorporated healthy fats from foods like fish and nuts in his diet to lose weight.
Why it's bogus: We tracked down the study that appears to lie at the root of these claims, and it found no such thing. Several University of Michigan researchers asked people to report which foods on a list they had the hardest time cutting out or eating moderately. Cheese ranked toward the middle. Nevertheless, since pizza, a cheesy food, ranked high on both lists, people speculated that cheese was the culprit, going as far to suggest something about the way one of its proteins breaks down in the body is addictive. There's little to no evidence to back this up.
The myth: Artificial sweeteners like Splenda and Equal have been found to cause cancer.
Why it's bogus: The Food and Drug Administration has evaluated hundreds of studies on sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet'N Low) and more. So far, it has deemed all of them safe.
The myth: Genetically modified organisms cause cancer and wreak havoc on the environment.
Why it's bogus: GMO crops, which have been around since the 1980s, have been studied at length, and a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that they aren't posing any greater risk to the environment than regular crops. It also found no evidence that they "are less safe to eat than conventional food," my colleague Lydia Ramsey reported.
The myth: Salt causes heart problems and weight gain.
Why it's bogus: The science about whether eating salt in moderation has a net negative or positive effect on our health is somewhat unclear. However, a 2011 meta-analysis of seven studies involving more than 6,000 people published in the American Journal of Hypertension found no strong evidence that reducing salt decreased people's risk of heart attack, stroke, or death — even in those who had high blood pressure.
"If the US does conquer salt, what will we gain? Bland french fries, for sure. But a healthy nation? Not necessarily," Melinda Wenner Moyer wrote in Scientific American.
The myth: Carbohydrates — including rice, bread, cereal, and potatoes — contribute to weight gain.
Why it's bogus: While it's a good idea to limit your intake of processed carbs like white bread, white rice, and white pasta, not all carbs are bad for you. Some are healthy and a great source of energy. Take potatoes, for example.
"White potatoes are actually very good for you," Christian Henderson, a registered dietitian, told Health. Potatoes pack potassium and vitamin C, and they have almost 4 grams of fiber — just cook them with the skins on.
The myth: Fish is high in mercury and will make you sick.
Why it's bogus: While mercury can build up in larger, older predator fish like marlin and shark, it's not generally a problem in smaller fish. The FDA maintains a helpful list of guidelines for mercury in seafood — salmon, trout, oysters, herring, sardines, and Atlantic and Pacific mackerel are all considered "good" or "best" choices, according to the FDA.