Google has a reputation for hiring really smart people. (I will burst your bubble on one small point: the urban legend that all prospective hires have to take a really hard test is untrue.) So I was pretty excited to give a talk there through their Authors@Google program. It’s always fun to have a really challenging audience. The San Francisco bay area is one of the world’s Woo Central headquarters too; it’s the home of alternative everything, and the all-natural fallacy is nowhere more deeply embedded. Combine that with a super-smart audience, and a skeptical speaker is sure to have a wild time.
As usually happens when I travel to give a talk, my core group of hosts are already on board with the whole skeptical thing, and so we had a good time before and after the talk snacking in one of Google’s many free cafes and having lunch. This provided a first-hand look at one of Google’s most visible bows to local custom: food woo. Everything is color coded. In the cafeterias, regular food is labeled in one color. Vegan is another. Organic is another. Gluten-free is another. They’re all given equal time, as if there is equal reason for a healthy person to seek out gluten-free food (there is no such reason) or organic food (ditto). The soda dispensers proudly state that all drinks contain only cane sugar (even the diet soft drinks, a humorous little accident), as if there is good reason to avoid high fructose corn syrup (there is not).
Drink refrigerators abound throughout the campus, and everything’s free. I’m less likely to look a gift horse in the mouth than I am to pour a gift drink into my mouth, but it was pointed out to me that the drinks are all color coded too: green, yellow, or red. It was explained that anything with “chemicals”, like a Diet Coke, would be labeled red, which the key explained should be avoided. Diet Coke has zero calories, and basically nothing that will hurt you if consumed in normal amounts. However, a fruit drink like a fruit smoothie, bursting at the seams with sugar and hundreds of calories, would be labeled green, due to its all-natural goodness. Hmm. I examined one of the refrigerators myself, and found the opposite; the labels were red for high calories and green for low calories, but it was not a good sample. This particular refrigerator contained only fruit drinks. From what I was told, different refrigerators around campus follow different rules. Milk might be labeled red because of its evil dairy nature.
During our Q&A, much of the talk centered on food woo. I did my best to lay out the basic case; that every compound on the planet is either harmless or poisonous depending only on the dose, that everything is made of chemicals, and that foods marketed as all-natural are no more likely to be any healthier than any other. The nice girl who organized the event, who had no prior exposure to Skeptoid, asked me a really good question. It’s such a great question because it’s honest, and reflects a wildly popular perspective. She asked “How do I find a happy medium; I don’t want to be taken advantage of by deceptive marketing, but I also don’t want to eat chemicals?”
My answer for this is in two parts. First, most obviously, is that everything is chemicals. If you looked at a chemical breakdown of an apple, it would read just as ugly as the ingredient list in a Diet Coke. Scary sounding chemical names. All molecules and chemical compounds generally have complicated names; it doesn’t mean there’s anything bad about them.
Second, it’s important to understand why you want or don’t want a particular food, and to make sure that your reasons are sound. There are many reasons why people make food choices. Some are ideological, and some are scientific. Some are based on wrong assumptions. If you choose to be vegan or vegetarian for ideological reasons, that’s wonderful, and perfectly valid. But if you choose organic food because you think it’s healthier, that’s based on faulty science. I drink diet soda instead of regular soda because I don’t want the calories, and that’s sound science. But if I eat gluten-free crackers because I think it will improve my general wellness, that’s false. If you don’t want to be taken advantage of by deceptive marketing, you will have to devote a little bit of elbow grease to research.
I had a wonderful time during my day at Google, and send my sincere thanks to my hosts. I would love to do it again.
Addedum: I really want to stress that last sentence. The day was an overwhelmingly positive experience, and the opinion I formed is that there is much more to praise about Google and its people than there is fault to be found. I mean, Toto toilets, come on…