Why You Shouldn’t Always Believe What You Read – Even From Perceived Reputable Sources
As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, the stated mission is, as I modestly put it in the first entry “to be a shining beacon of truth in a sea of bullsh*t about health and fitness”.
Now the readership may be small (but growing!) but I like to think that if I can help a few hundred, or hopefully even a few thousand readers get good quality information on fitness and nutrition on a regular basis then I’m making a difference.
But when an article from a supposedly respectable news publication filled with misinformation about nutrition gets published, it all suddenly feels like a much higher mountain to climb. Even more depressingly, one such article recently went so viral it got translated into Chinese and the Chinese translation also went viral.
Haspel’s argument that salad is a waste of time is based on the assertion that while “it occupies precious crop acreage and requires fossil fuels to be shipped and refrigerated”, but is “pitifully low in nutrition”. Not only this, the article claims, salad “fools dieters into making bad choices” (because they are sometimes offered mixed with unheathy foodstuffs) and salads “are the biggest source of foodborne illlnesses”.
Now, leaving aside the fact that almost all perishable food items require crop acreage to grow, fossil fuels to be shipped and refrigerated, (which could be considered a problem affecting any fresh food), there are some major problems with each of these arguments. First, to support her claim that salads are nutrition poor, Haspel singles out the least nutritious lettuce type (iceberg), totally ignoring the fact that romaine lettuce, arugula, mesclun, oak leaf, butterhead all offer way more vitamins and minerals.
(If you don’t believe me, check out this nutrient list all taken from nutritiondata.self.com:
These nutrient lists include obvious examples that show Haspel is plain wrong about salad nutrition (to take just one example, just 100 grams of romaine lettuce gives you 174% of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin A). And there are other aspects of salad nutrition that Haspel completely ignores, including the presence of phytochemicals in plant based foods that are a source of cancer-preventing anti-oxidants.
But the most important point that gives lie to Haspel’s argument about salad nutrition relates to nutrients per calorie in vegetables like lettuce. Salads are highly nutrient dense; the same 100 grams of romaine lettuce that gives you all that Vitamin A has only 17 calories. Nutrients per calorie is an important measurement of how healthy food is, with raw unprocessed natural foods like romaine lettuce, almonds etc. on one end of the spectrum and processed sugars, with “empty calories” on the other end.
This is precisely why Haspel’s next point, that salad fools dieters into making bad choices is based on such a faulty argument. While it is true that many salads are often mixed in with high calorie ingredients, the abundant and essential nutrients in salad makes the claim that salads with added croutons or cheese are an inherently poor dietary choice seem rather disputable.
Her statement about lettuce being composed mostly of water also doesn’t ‘hold water’ (sorry for the pun). Nutritional value is calculated according to the absolute amount of nutrition per calorie. Water content is irrelevant to measurements of nutrition.
And while she makes the somewhat valid point that people become complacent in their diet choices when they read the word ‘salad’ because they just believe that it must be healthy, this serves another rather pernicious line of argument. She is right that we shouldn’t be seduced by labels like “fresh”, “low fat” and consider the source and overall nutrition of any meal choice carefully. But how can this be used to argue that salads are inherently “overrated”? Surely the same principle applies to anything we eat that is considered healthy?
Lastly, and most offensively in my opinion, she claims that salad is bad in our food supply because raw lettuce is the biggest source for foodborne illnesses stating:
“But it’s also the chief culprit for foodborne illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control, green leafies accounted for 22 percent of all food-borne illnesses from 1998-2008.”
To support this pretty bold claim, Haspel cites the Centers for Disease Control but only with a hyperlink to their homepage. This is a pretty terrible way to reference your sources, especially for a respectable journalism publication. Not only that, I even did a search on the site for the quoted statistic and couldn’t find anything. At best, Haspel was lazy in linking the correct reference. At worst, she may have made fabricated the claim. Either way, it’s pretty amateurish for a Washington Post article.
But inaccurate and misleading assertions aside, the thing I find most irritating about the article is that it is clearly click-bait. It is easy to write a contrarian article with an attention-grabbing heading like “salad is overrated”. And it’s not surprising that it went viral and probably helped the Washington Post increase the view count of its site. But in my view this is hugely irresponsible journalism about a very important topic: people’s nutrition.
And the knock on effects have been pretty depressing. The Washington Post has an enviable reputation among news publications, in part due to its 47 Pulitzer prizes for journalism . So it’s no wonder that even when they publish trash, it gets republished around the world:
And like a virus, stupidity breeds stupidity, as if the article didn’t already provide enough. Check out some of the comments from readers of the article translated from Chinese:
It is an outstanding article, it explains the general knowledge in understandable way, spread the healthy food knowledge from its topic. 1, cucumber and lettuce, belong to junk vegetables, are low in nutrition, but seldom people realise it. 2, Salad dressing is unhealthy. 3, It occupies precious crop acreage.
Whatever green salad or fruit salad you eat, once you add a spoon salad dressing (Salad Oil) on them, the energy you take would equal 2 bowl of rice.
Salad is hard to absorb the nutrient, meanwhile it is not clean, because of raw foods. You may get sick if you eat it.
Unbelievable. Congratulations, Washington Post. Those 47 Pulitzers really are deserved.