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Inside Google

by Brian Dunning, Jun 16 2011

Skeptoid @ Google

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…

47 Responses to “Inside Google”

  1. Somite says:

    “as if there is good reason to avoid high fructose corn syrup (there is not).”

    There are good reasons to avoid sugar.

    Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology 7, 251-264 (May 2010) | doi:10.1038/nrgastro.2010.41

    Subject Categories: Liver | Nutrition

    The role of fructose in the pathogenesis of NAFLD and the metabolic syndrome
    Jung Sub Lim, Michele Mietus-Snyder, Annie Valente, Jean-Marc Schwarz & Robert H. Lustig About the authors

    top of page
    Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most frequent liver disease worldwide, and is commonly associated with the metabolic syndrome. Secular trends in the prevalence of these diseases may be associated with the increased fructose consumption observed in the Western diet…..”

    • Matt says:

      “Secular trends in the prevalence of these diseases may be associated with the increased fructose consumption observed in the Western diet…”

      “We postulate that excessive dietary fructose consumption may underlie the development of NAFLD and the metabolic syndrome. Furthermore, we postulate that NAFLD and alcoholic fatty liver disease share the same pathogenesis.”

      I can hardly argue with a ringing endorsement like that.

      • Somite says:

        Good science writing acknowledges uncertainty. A sign that you should be skeptic of a claim is absolute certainty.

    • Mchl says:

      Cane sugar contains fructose as well. Best advice is to cut down (that is reduce, not eliminate :P) all sugars, not just one.

    • Good point. I meant there’s no nutritional reason to avoid HFCS in favor of sugar. However there is good nutritional reason to avoid both, beyond what little you may burn in exercise.

      • Tim Gowan says:

        In your episode on HFCS, you said the following:

        “The fact is that there is huge correlation between HFCS consumption and obesity, and all sorts of obesity related conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Nobody disputes that.”

        I’m not sure the question is quite as settled as you put it. Have you heard of Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories? Maybe he’s wrong, but he is very well read in the literature.

        You write:
        “The problem arises when people make the common error of mistaking correlation for causation. There’s an equally valid correlation between obesity and dirty dishes. The cause of obesity and obesity related diabetes is overeating more calories than you burn. It makes no difference whether you overeat food containing pure cane sugar, food containing HFCS, or organic spinach: Too many calories is too many calories, and you’ll become obese and suffer the same obesity related complications no matter what you ate to get you there. Fat is fat.”

        This might be true, but I don’t think it’s settled science yet.

        I also recommend potholer54’s examination of the issue:

    • Mario says:

      I Should point out that Brian do mention what is more important: the amount.

      All the studies related to HFCS are based on the premise of the amount of sugar that is ingested on a single dose as the leading cause of metabolic disturbances, most of the conclusions have a tendency that show that the higher the amount you eat at once the bigger the damage, that is presumed to be the same whether you use cane sugar or HFCS, but the fact is that your body and specially your liver is more suited to use glucose instead of fructose, again we get to the same point: the amount.

      That is up to certain amount of fructose the oxidative stress put on your liver to overcome is perfectly handeled, so yes HFCS is bad in high amounts, but that does not mean that simply by substitution of cane sugar the problem is solved, and that I think is the point that Brian is stating: HFCS is bad in high amounts just like cane sugar or any simple Carbohydrate, the key is the amount.

  2. Philip Tucker says:

    I agree “certified organic” means little, but it does mean fewer hormones used in livestock (please correct me if I’m wrong on this point), which is healthier for them if not us. Also, many simply like the taste of cane sugar more than HFCS.

    • Max says:

      “To be sold as organic, livestock must meet several criteria:
      * They are fed only organic, vegetarian feed. They may not be fed meat from other slaughtered animals (a common component of conventional livestock feed).
      * They are not treated with any antibiotics or hormones.
      * The meat is not treated with radiation.
      * They are raised under conditions that allow exercise and access to the outdoors.
      The USDA can inspect farms for compliance. It’s believed that the vast majority of organic farmers follow these practices.”

    • An organic certification is of varying value depending on who’s doing the certification and what the standards are. California’s “certified organic” is stricter, and worth more, than the USDA’s.

  3. Beelzebud says:

    I avoid high fructose corn syrup because it tastes like crap compared to the ingredients it ends up replacing. Would you rather eat “Maple Syrup” that was basically just corn syrup with some maple flavoring added, or would you want to have the real deal? I want the real deal.

    • My reasons exactly for many of the products I buy too! (Of course, living in NH makes it really easy to get the read deal Maple Syrup!) I am a fan of the taste of organic milk that we get up here (yes, the family did a double blind experiment to figure out the brand we like. A fun day of science.). We found that we all prefered a brand that came from a very local farm. Probably had a lot more to do with the lesser amount of transportation and packaging that this off brand local farm does than it being labeled “organic” though. Much like the eggs from our neighbors coop really taste better than any grocery bought eggs.

  4. “everything is chemicals”

    Even breatharians are ingesting chemicals! OMFSM! :o

  5. oldebabe says:

    The Google labeling, while kind of fun, all seems to be going around the fact that eating too much (or any) of some things, like sugar/sugar type-filled/laced items, will make one fat, and can and does affect ones health. Obviously, it doesn’t matter what ones philosophy about it is.

  6. Tom H says:

    I’m more worried that the labels can change between the different fridges. If, for example, you did not believe in “evil” milk, but WERE lactose intollerent (or had a genuine gluten intollerence) and was used to Red meaning “had milk/gluten/whatever” in one fridge, finding the rules changed at another would annoy the heck out of me, when I found a “safe” smoothie had yoghurt in.

  7. Guy McCardle says:

    What if the sugar is “organic” and doesn’t contain any “chemicals”?

  8. Max says:

    You think Diet Coke is healthier than fruits because fruits have calories? Maybe the food pyramid (now food plate) should replace the two cups of fruit with diet sodas.

    “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.”

    Yeah, if you’re ignorant and don’t know the difference between ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and phosphoric acid, then it’ll all sound the same to you.

    • tmac57 says:

      I can see it now, the Anti-Fruit Network: “They are contaminating our children’s food with ‘acids’!!!”

  9. Max says:

    Vegetables and fruits

    “Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits can help you ward off heart disease and stroke, control blood pressure, prevent some types of cancer, avoid a painful intestinal ailment called diverticulitis, and guard against cataract and macular degeneration, two common causes of vision loss.”

    Diet Sodas

    “Although the scientific findings are mixed and not conclusive, there is worrisome evidence that regular use of artificial sweeteners may promote weight gain. Because of these mixed findings about artificial sweeteners, drinking diet soda may not be the best replacement for drinking sugary soda.”

    And they don’t even mention the caffeine, phosphoric acid, sulfite ammonia caramel, and potassium benzoate in Diet Coke.
    Drinking 2 or more colas per day was associated with increased risk of chronic kidney disease (adjusted odds ratio = 2.3; 95% confidence interval = 1.4-3.7). Results were the same for regular colas (2.1; 1.3-3.4) and artificially sweetened colas (2.1; 0.7-2.5). Noncola carbonated beverages were not associated with chronic kidney disease (0.94; 0.4-2.2).

    • JJ says:

      Funny.. I see nothing in Brian’s article that compares “[e]ating plenty of vegetables and fruits” (from your quote) and diet soda.

      • Max says:

        “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.”

        The implication is that the labeling is backwards.
        Now, if a fruit drink has hundreds of calories per cup or pint, then it probably has a lot of sugar added, but even a smoothie from fresh fruit without added sugar can have 260 calories per pint. Does that mean it’s less healthy than Diet Coke?

    • There’s nothing “wrong” with phosphoric acid. That’s a myth nearly 50 years old. Go look on Snopes.

      • Max says:

        LOL, I’m not talking about removing rust from nails, I’m talking about removing calcium from bones and promoting kidney stones.
        The abstract I linked to above says: “Cola beverages, in particular, contain phosphoric acid and have been associated with urinary changes that promote kidney stones.”

        CSPI listed it as safe: “While excessive consumption of phosphates could lead to dietary imbalances that might contribute to osteoporosis, only a small fraction of the phosphate in the American diet comes from additives. Most comes from meat and dairy products.”

        But it’s still not a vitamin like ascorbic acid, so my point stands that chemicals that sound equally scary can be very different.

      • Max says:

        Sorry, the point about ascorbic acid being a vitamin was in a previous post.

        But the thing that makes Diet Coke even lousy for hydration is the caffeine, which is a diuretic.

      • Coke Zero! Or Diet Sprite, or Fresca.

        Besides, Coke Zero does, without being a Coca-Cola shill, taste more like Coke than Diet Coke does.

        On phosphoric acid, I think, as does Snopes, that the amount in Coke is too small to leach bone calcium, etc., unless one is drinking 5 liters a day.

  10. Somite says:

    “…..that everything is made of chemicals, and that foods marketed as all-natural are no more likely to be any healthier than any other.”

    But this statement is missing the point and is only a half-truth. It is true that some processed foods are labeled “all-natural” in the face of heavy processing and addition, or concentration, of sugar and salt and these would not be “healthier than any other”. However the healthiest foods are those that are “all-natural” with no sugar or salt added.

    A more correct statement would be “reduce the consumption of foods with excess or added calories, sugars or salt. Eat more unprocessed whole foods.”

    I’ll give you a better example of what Dunning is trying to say. Consider Stevia and Splenda. Stevia preparations are sold as “natural” because it comes from a plant. Because FDA does not regulate natural products it has not undergone toxicology testing and its safety is basically unknown. Splenda is artificial and therefore has undergone safety testing and has been shown to be safe. However, people will mistakenly assume that Stevia is safer because it is natural.

  11. Jeff Pedigo says:

    Great post, Brian. It’s amazing how many people think “chemicals” are automatically a bad thing, when they themselves are composed of nothing more.

    • Max says:

      I think that most Googlers have taken a course in chemistry and know what a chemical is.
      The chemicals people worry about are artificial or not naturally present in food. Those include pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and various food additives.

      Here’s a guide to which additives are safe or unsafe.

      Skip to the list of banned additives

      “The food and chemical industries have said for decades that all food additives are well tested and safe. And most additives are safe. However, the history of food additives is riddled with additives that, after many years of use, were found to pose health risks. Those listed below have been banned. The moral of the story is that when someone says that all food additives are well tested and safe you should take their assurances with a grain of salt.”

      • Trimegistus says:

        The Center for “Science” in the “Public Interest” is hardly an objective or accurate source for this information.

      • Max says:

        It’s no worse than ACSH and CGFI, which are cited in the Skeptoid episode on organic food myths.

      • ‘The Center for “Science” in the “Public Interest” is hardly an objective or accurate source for this information.’
        Well said. Dangerous veggie extremist freaks. It was these wackos that lobbied for McDonalds to replace perfectly good beef tallow they were frying their fries in with hydrogenated fats in the first place…

      • Max says:

        They pressured McDonald’s to replace beef tallow with vegetable oil, but it was McDonald’s that decided to use partially hydrogenated fats, which CSPI says are even worse.

        “It was a huge victory… or so we thought. In the late 1980s, pressure from CSPI and other consumer groups forced the major fast food hamburger chains to stop frying their potatoes, fish, and chicken in beef tallow.
        ‘McDonald’s French Fries to be Cooked in Cholesterol-Free, 100% Vegetable Oil,’ announced the company’s press release in 1990.
        It was only partially right. The switch was not to pure vegetable oil, but to partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening.
        The distinction isn’t trivial. Our tests show that, thanks to their trans fat, the french fries sold at McDonald’s, Arby’s, and Hardee’s have roughly as much artery-clogging fat as if they were fried in lard. Burger King and Wendy’s fries are even worse. They’re a bigger threat to your arteries than potatoes cooked in beef tallow.”

        Here’s their page on trans fat. Notice that it’s not extremist.

        “Trans fat is not a toxin that will kill everyone who eats even a tiny amount. It’s worth avoiding foods in which partially hydrogenated oil is one of the first few ingredients on the label, but not worth worrying about if partially hydrogenated oil is down near the end of the ingredient list.”

        “Surprisingly, fully hydrogenated oils appear to be innocuous. In the case of fully hydrogenated soybean oil, the hydrogenation process increases the amount of saturated fat, but most of that fat is stearic acid. Stearic acid does not raise ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol levels, because the body converts it quickly to monounsaturated oleic acid (the characteristic fatty acid in olive oil).”

  12. BillG says:

    Health wise, my concern which is not ideological nor natural/organic/processed, is perhaps how our food is handled from farm to fork. Food poisoning cases only get attention when death or major illness occurs. My totally unqualified hypothesis is the minor cases that effect the population on a daily basis. How often do we feel fatigued, nauseous, or merely not our optimum best?

    Granted, symptoms usually diminish within 48 hours though effecting absenteeism, productivity and generally our quality of life. Again, I have no data nor how we can quantify this.

    • tmac57 says:

      Probably one of the weakest links in food safety,is in the home.I am constantly amazed at the ignorance that people display in home food preparation.Failing to adequately wash produce,undercooking meat,cross contamination from meat preparation to fresh foods,leaving prepared foods out too long before refrigerating them,too high fridge temperatures,basic hygiene steps ignored etc. etc.
      My brother was grilling steaks and hamburgers for a party one evening,and started to place the cooked meat back on to the tray that he had brought the raw meat out on,which was swimming in raw juices,and had been sitting out where flies were constantly landing in it.I freaked out,and stopped him,and insisted that we get a clean tray.He thought I was being a nervous nelly.Sheeesh!

  13. Trimegistus says:

    Great post, Mr. Dunning!

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d consider it a less-than-idyllic work environment if my bosses are trying to make me choose my soft drinks according to what they think is good for me. The fact that their decisions are based on woo makes one question just how “super-smart” they are.

  14. G Money says:

    Why is there a bust of Alec Baldwin on the Google campus?

    • Apparently they change out those busts pretty frequently. When I was there, they were all people associated with the sea, Jacques Cousteau and some other environmentalists, plus characters like Poseidon. None of us could figure out the Alec Baldwin connection either. Maybe he was in a movie about the sea??? :-)

  15. Max says:

    Here’s the talk.

    During the Q&A, Dunning said homeopathic Zicam has no active ingredients, which is false and might lead people to overdose on it for the next 10:23 event.

  16. Adam says:

    My kids are coeliac so fad or not, greater availability and proper labeling of GF foods is a Good Thing as far as I’m concerned.

    Biggest risk is some restaurants might incorrectly assume it’s a lifestyle thing rather than a medical condition. If that happens they might not understand the consequences of contamination.

    I hope Google’s cafeteria isn’t like that if for no other reason than 1% of their workforce is likely to be coeliac and a screwup will take them off work for a day or two.

  17. AR says:

    the talk if you havent seen it yet

  18. I read this yesterday and it seemed off. Took me a bit to realize why. It’s because I’m a skeptic as well, but I have a completely different baseline than you which makes me favor organic foods as much as possible. My baseline is before all these chemicals got added, yours is after. Chemicals, bpa linings in cans, plastic water bottles, and hormones in your food are all after my baseline. Why would I want those things added to my foods? Whereas I think you’re coming a point where all these things are normal because they’ve now been added to food for so long that you don’t question them, they’re you’re baseline.

    For myself, I just think about all the crazy things we started doing in the 50’s due to flawed science and understanding of how things work, and know that not all of these have been gone back over with modern science. I also know that the FDA often allows through drugs and then 7 years the drug gets pulled due to causing cancer. They let through food additives with similar circumstances, and most plants are now drenched with pesticides. Because of all of this, my baseline is 75 years ago.

    • Mat says:

      What was life expectancy 75 years ago?

      • Max says:

        I’m sure we should thank BPA in baby bottles and Yellow 5 for extending our life expectancy.

      • Mat says:

        Hmmm… I’m not defending any particular chemical, it’s just an odd baseline to set. 75 years ago? Maybe he should have posted his comment by telegram…

  19. Heather says:

    This article has some major flaws in it. I don’t have much to add, because Max said it very well. A couple points:

    Studies have shown that the use of artifical sweeteners actually may cause weight gain. It’s not known why at this point, whether they make people hungrier or if it’s more a mental thing of thinking “I was good in having a diet soda, so I can eat more of something else,” and then overeating…

    I think it’s sad that anyone in this day and age would say pop of any kind could possibly be healthier than fruit. Myth. However, the author does mention fruit drinks and fruit smoothies in the same sentence, and these are 2 very different things. Fruit “drinks,” to me, are those fruit flavored drinks that don’t actually have fruit, but have tons of added sugar. These are no healthier than regular soda. However, a fruit smoothie, with just fruit and possibly yogurt, is very healthy. The wording the author uses makes it unclear which one he is actually speaking about.

    Heather, Registered Dietitian