Lactobacillus L. casei does not benefit the immune system, the taurine in energy drinks "does not give wings", the vitamins in functional foods can be acquired by eating fruit, and weight loss products are not effective. These are some of the aspects that José Manuel López Nicolás (Murcia, 1970), biochemist at the University of Murcia and author of the popular blog Scientia, reveals in his latest book, where the deceptions of the food and cosmetic industry are uncovered.
What do you intend with this book?
In the first place, denounce the misuse of the scientific message that many companies make to take advantage of the good perception of science that society has. On the other hand, I try to encourage the critical spirit of the citizen towards many of the food or cosmetic products that surround us. And tools are also offered so that the consumer is not deceived, as well as proposals for improvement with the joint participation of legislators, administration, the media, scientists, foundations and consumers.
Let's go to a specific case. Are functional foods, with their healthy ingredients, really necessary?
Not at all, and neither are food supplements. The nutrients with which these products have been enriched are found in much higher concentrations and at a much cheaper price in countless traditional foods. Furthermore, dietary intake surveys show that Spaniards, except in very exceptional cases, do not need to supplement. Those nutrients in functional foods, extolled by marketing campaigns, are provided in the same way and without any problem by a balanced diet.
Do products with L. casei, like Actimel, really help the immune system?
The entity that verifies these aspects is the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which does not evaluate products, but ingredients. To date, it has not issued any favorable report on L. casei, quite the contrary. There is no serious scientific evidence that this lactobacillus has the slightest role on the immune system. What happens is that there is evidence that vitamin B6 plays a role in the immune system, so what companies do is keep adding L. casei (so that people associate it with the immune system), but also include vitamin B6 to save the law. They already put this in the small print of the label. As an example, in a single banana there is triple the vitamin B6 than in many probiotics, which are also worth three times more.
"A banana has three times the vitamin B6 of many probiotics and a sardine has three times the phosphate, sugar and memory products"
Has EFSA denied the potential benefits of other products?
There are dozens of cases of famous ingredients that have received negative reports from the EU about their effectiveness. For example: taurine that is part of energy drinks, carnitine in food supplements, phosphatidylserine in supplements to study, isoflavones supposedly indicated for menopause, conjugated linoleic acid to lose weight ... The list is endless.
What are you referring to in your book when you talk about the cholesterol myth?
Because we are obsessed with lowering the amounts of cholesterol in our tests when in fact what we have to find out is the cause that has led to their levels soaring. In addition, cholesterol tests are not carried out with all the necessary rigor (often due to lack of means) and many more parameters should be controlled than are taken into account. Cholesterol is absolutely necessary for human life and sometimes we demonize it and become obsessed with eating functional foods that lower it slightly.
What are the dangers of energy drinks, especially for those who consume them the most: young people?
They are a nutritional bomb. What worries the most are the high levels of sugar they carry. There are drinks that contain almost 75 milligrams of sugar, the equivalent of almost 15 sachets. That is nonsense and the WHO recommends, at most, ingesting 25 grams of added sugar a day ... Three times less than a single energy drink! This abuse of sugar, which according to the EU affects almost 70% of the European adolescent population and almost 20% of children between 3 and 10 years old, is associated with diseases such as diabetes, obesity, tooth decay, etc.
"I do not like media that give room to pseudosciences or that camouflage infomercials"
Can all these products have a placebo effect, favored by marketing campaigns?
You may have it, but paying for a placebo what these products cost is absurd. In addition, in the case of energy drinks, although the placebo worked for ingredients such as taurine or L-carnitine (the star molecules of Red Bull and Monster, respectively), the health risk due to their high sugar content is evident .
ANDn general, do you think slimming and beauty products work?
You have to differentiate. There is little to say about weight loss products. There is no scientific evidence of its effectiveness. So clear. Regarding beauty, some work, like some moisturizers and serums that do not promise anything miraculous, but others, obviously, do not. I would like to clarify an important aspect of the cosmetic industry. Many serious and competent professionals work in it, offering high-quality products, but in the end the marketing departments impose themselves and promise shameful things. Thus the company defeats the work of responsible researchers. In the end, what interests the consumer is whether what cosmetic products promise is true, and in the vast majority of cases it is not.
What do you think about the media treatment of these issues?
I do not like media that allow pseudosciences in their programming. Neither do those who camouflage us advertorials among their information. I am referring to those who try to sell us a product but without indicating that it is advertising. There are shameful cases in newscasts or even in popular magazines in which, without telling us that it is advertising, they show us specific products and trademarks.
What about programs like Superfoods?
I honestly did not like any chapter I have seen. The "experiments" that are done to demonstrate the effectiveness of a product lack any scientific rigor, and drawing conclusions from them is ridiculous. On the other hand it offers a bad image of the scientific method. A citizen who is not related to science can get biased ideas of what scientific research is. In addition, many statements that are made are not only not verified, but also go against reports issued by official bodies.
"The blame for this situation is shared between companies, legislators, administration, the media, scientists, foundations and consumers"
Are illegal products sold in shopping centers?
Yes, there are products that have not been adjusted to the new European food and cosmetic regulations. They remain on commercial surfaces without being removed. The administration is very much to blame for it. This has a serious consequence: when a company sees that the competition is cheating and is not penalized, it tends to imitate it. It is essential that the control bodies exercise their work and have a strong hand with the cheaters.
Who are the main people responsible for selling us lies?
Contrary to what we might think, not only companies are responsible. There are the laws that leave open windows through which marketing departments, administrations that do not do their surveillance work well, foundations and professional associations that endorse products without any rigor confusing society, also scientists who they lend their image and that of their centers to food or functional cosmetics of very doubtful efficacy… Everyone is partly to blame.
Including the consumer?
The consumer should not have advanced knowledge of chemistry, genetics, biotechnology or nutrition ... nor do they have to look closely at the labels to see where the trap is. But what he is responsible for is not to use the existing legal channels when he wants to make a complaint. We have all seen defective products with misleading advertising, but how many of us have gone to consumer offices to complain? Very few. We are lazy and we always excuse ourselves that it will be useless, that we have to queue ...
The consumer should not have advanced knowledge of chemistry, genetics, biotechnology or nutrition ... nor do they have to look closely at the labels to see where the trap is. We are lazy and we always excuse ourselves that it will be useless, that we have to queue ...
Any advice to improve the situation?
There are scientific tools to prevent fraud, such as checking what EFSA says about the effectiveness of any star ingredient. For example, one sardine has more phosphorus than three boxes of De Memory. In any case, without the involvement of all the agents I have mentioned above, the trap will always be ahead of the knowledge. Do you have to educate? Yes, but in parallel you have to legislate. On these issues, education alone does not go anywhere.