What to eat: Anyone for acid-free snake oil?

The alkaline diet, the raw diet, all kinds of craziness all over the internet… the only word for it is ‘nutribollocks’

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20th October 2016

The tradition of charlatans with crackpot theories is nothing new, especially in the world of health, although it wasn’t until 1917 that they became known as snake-oil salesmen. Back then a crowd would have attested to the magical properties of said oil before the salesmen skipped town. The tradition continues today, magnified, like everything else, by social media. The new grifters, the wellness stars of Instagram, attract hundreds of thousands of followers but they don’t leave town; instead they take on a publicist and sign a book deal while they dole out their advice.

The fact that we all have to eat shouldn’t give everyone a licence to advise on nutritional science, any more than a frequent flyer — even one who can identify every stage of the take-off, flight and landing —ought to-actually pilot the plane. I have a friend who has moved house a dozen times in the last decade and she can talk the talk on conveyancing — but I wouldn’t hire her to do it. I would instruct a solicitor with a full knowledge of every aspect of the process.

The latest uninsured and unregulated internet diet grifters sound equally convincing because they have learned the language of flimsy pseudo-science. Their theories can be easily dismissed by anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of nutritional-science, but they persist in spreading advice which is best described as ‘nutribollocks’.

Take the alkaline diet, for example. Its supporters claim that the pH of the human body can be changed through diet, which in turn reduces the risk of disease. According to a leading alkaline diet website, ‘An-overly acidic body will be much more prone to disease, lethargy, poor skin, insomnia, mood swings and all manor of ailments associated with a body that is laden with stress.’ Others describe in detail how human cells in an acidic state are more likely to mutate into cancerous cells, which will wither in an alkaline environment. Then they list food and drink that are considered to be either acid or alkaline. Familiar foods such as corn, oats, salmon and peas are supposedly acid-forming while avocado, kale and oranges have an alkaline outcome, so they claim.-Nutribollocks indeed.

By way of a reminder, pH stands for potential hydrogen and is used to measure acidity, ranging from zero to 14 (zero being extremely acidic. The elaborate systems that monitor and alter the pH levels of the human body keep it between 7.35 and 7.45. Millennia of evolution have created a-system that maintains this through a-highly complex system that cannot be changed in any meaningful way by what we eat. The-theory is a compelling one, as it makes heroes of some foods while casting others in the role of villain, with the grifters casting themselves in the role of learned guides.

But this alkaline theory has been-widely and vociferously debunked and it seems impossible that the grifters are ignorant of this. Is it a case of wilful ignorance when the spoils of attention are more alluring than the truth?

When it comes to raw food, the theory is that the process of cooking and processing depletes nutrient levels. To be more precise, any food that is heated above 40C or 104F risks damage to natural enzymes that in turn maintain human health. Furthermore, temperatures higher than the magic number spoil the nutrients in food, supposedly.

There is a teeny smidgen of truth here, but the spoilage is negligible and-fussing about it creates an unwelcome degree of anxiety in the worried well. Surely it was the-ability to make fire and cook that separated man from other animals, and to reject-cooking seems ungrateful.

Supporters are passionate about their chosen nutribollocks and I expect a full inbox and several tweets accusing me of ignorance should they read this-article. And I hope they do, because it matters. We have ever-growing health issues that are directly caused by the food we eat, including type 2 diabetes, obesity and some forms of cancer.

The grifters moan that mainstream-dietary advice isn’t working, and I suspect that this makes them feel they are performing a vital public service role. Yet the truth is that most of us don’t follow the best advice even when we are aware of it. There is-plenty of it about too — five a day, oily fish twice a week, less than 6g of salt every day, 30g of both sugar and saturated fat daily, eat at least 30g fibre daily. All have been widely researched and are achievable if we could be bothered.

Dull though the basic-elements of advice may be, they do work. The nutribollocks that abounds-muddies the water.

Add a little of it here and there if you must, but it should be no more than the-sugar-free icing on your gluten-free cake, not the whole foundation of your nutritional health.


  • Bardirect

    Apparently even minerals, basic elements like iron zinc magnezium etc can disappear. Where do they go without nuclear fission or fusion? “Nutritionists” are the 21st century alchemists.

  • Cough. Surely the p in pH stands for potenz and isn’t it true that this means the power or potency of hydrogen, not its ‘potential’ (whatever that might mean)?

    As for salt: that has been weirdly vilified, and those of us that sweat a lot (e.g. athletes) need more of it. Salt is an absolute necessity, and in my baking it is essential also for the flavour even of sweet pastries, never mind savoury ones. Given a chance, it’s the sugar I reduce, not the salt.