December 5 2013
Cupcakes, Chemicals, and a Culture of Alarmism
Kathryn Jean Lopez
‘I’m a mother — a mother of three hungry, energetic boys — who is tired of those who try to make parenting, and plain old living, more complicated, stressful, and less fun than it should be,” Julie Gunlock declares in the introduction of her new book, From Cupcakes to Chemicals: How the Culture of Alarmism Makes Us Afraid of Everything and How to Fight Back. “It’s critical,” she adds, “that moms be able to discern between false alarmism and real risks.” Thus the book, which she discusses with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is anyone really afraid of cupcakes?
JULIE GUNLOCK: Believe it or not, even the innocent cupcake is under attack by the party-pooper food scolds. That’s because one of the main ingredients in cupcakes is sugar, which in recent years has been called everything from a dangerous toxin and a poison to a slow-acting biological weapon. Some are even demanding sugar be formally designated as a health hazard or taxed to such a degree that it becomes difficult for consumers to afford sugary products. The truth is, sugar is a natural ingredient and causes harm only when too much of it is consumed. Most reasonable people understand that a diet high in sugary foods isn’t good for you. Telling people to use a little common sense and practice moderation is better advice than trying to terrify people with claims that sugar is a mass murderer.
LOPEZ: There is good reason to be afraid of excess chemicals in our food, though. Is there a danger in pushing back too much against alarmism? There is some reason to be alarmed, after all.
GUNLOCK: It’s simply not true that there are “excess chemicals in our food.” Most people associate chemicals and food with Bisphenol-A (BPA) — a chemical used in the epoxy lining of canned food (which keeps the food free of what’s really scary — bacteria which can actually harm or kill quite swiftly). Anti-chemical activists like to say that BPA leaches into the food at dangerous levels but the far less dramatic truth is that the amount that transfers from the can lining to the food is minuscule and, as the latest research explains, passes through the body so quickly that it doesn’t stick around long enough to do anything. Sure, there are studies that suggest otherwise, but those studies typically involve rats that are injected with massive doses of BPA directly into their bloodstream. As I explain in my book, eating a can of chicken-noodle soup is hardly the same as injecting oneself with a syringe-full of BPA. This distinction is rarely explained by the anti-chemical activists. This terrifies mothers — particularly those who may rely on affordable canned food to feed their families.
LOPEZ: Are there really “how to be perfect” websites? What’s the danger there?
GUNLOCK: Oh sure! From mommy and cooking blogs to home-décor websites, the Internet is filled with websites that make women feel bad about their own lives. They aren’t all bad. I’m a fan of several of these sites — Ree Drummond’s Pioneer Woman website is filled with stunning photography as well as great recipes minus the lecturing. I also visit a few blogs written by farmers. But too many nowadays feature staged photographs of perfectly clean, organized, expertly decorated homes filled with well-behaved children and serene, perma-smiling moms (who have clearly showered, applied makeup, and styled their hair) preparing meals in tidy kitchens. I generally view these “perfect” sites with amusement, but I do find it dangerous when the writers on these sites — the vast majority of whom have not an ounce of medical training or education — dole out medical advice or advance terrifying and false alarmist claims. For instance, I often see mommy bloggers tell women they should purchase only fresh and organic produce. They normally accompany this advice with some vague suggestion that pesticides are dangerous and can cause cancer. Well, yes, if you drink a bucket of pesticides, you’ll get sick and probably develop a whole host of diseases, but no one’s doing that, right? What moms rarely hear is the truth, which is a whole heck of a lot more reassuring. Residue left on the more affordable conventionally grown produce is barely detectable and is far too low to impact the human body. Moms also aren’t told that the EPA actually has a rigorous monitoring program where they continually check the pesticide residue levels on the fruits and vegetables shipped to grocery stores to ensure those levels remain below the tolerance levels. As I explained in my book, my children could eat 15 servings of apples and they would still be within what regulators consider the safe tolerance level. That’s a lot of apples!
For women who (like me) can’t afford organic produce, conventionally grown, fresh produce and canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are a nutritionally dense alternative. It galls me no end that some mommy blogger suggest I should feel guilty or tell me I’m harming my children by choosing non-organic produce. This demonizing of affordable food is particularly harmful to those who live under the poverty line, since this is the demographic with the highest rate of obesity. We should be encouraging the purchase of all fruits and vegetables, not just the expensive kind!
I simply wish mommy bloggers had a better sense that they should be careful not to pass on false claims of danger to their readers.
LOPEZ: What do you have against Jenny McCarthy?
GUNLOCK: Jenny McCarthy is one of the most dangerous women in America today and I’m very disappointed (though not at all surprised) that ABC gave her such a visible platform to promote her anti-science agenda. I’ve seen The View only a handful of times (and it was painful each time!), but it’s pretty clear that the women hosting The View don’t put a high premium on facts or on thoughtful discussion of complicated issues. Emotions, feelings, and personal anecdotes rule on that show, so McCarthy will fit right in. And while McCarthy presents herself as an everywoman, she’s hardly that. I firmly believe her barely coherent, anti-vaccination rants have harmed children. She continues to terrify parents by promoting the now widely debunked claim that certain vaccinations cause autism, which is why fewer children get vaccinated today and why we’re beginning to see outbreaks of measles and other diseases around the country. McCarthy’s more recent comments about how she alone cured her son of autism through diet and vitamins has led to desperate and very vulnerable parents of autistic children conducting, essentially, human trials on their own children. These treatments involve bleach enemas, fad diets, and other extreme and unproven experiments. So far, McCarthy seems to be keeping her anti-vaccination opinions to herself rather than promoting them on The View, but I suspect that’s because she’s in her first year of a very lucrative contract and wants to keep her crazy in check. I give it a year until we see Dr. McCarthy reemerge.
LOPEZ: Now you do note a “downside” to modern-day food conveniences. “As food production in America has increasingly become automated, industrialized, and hidden from view, people are increasingly ignorant about food production.” Do we have a moral obligation to know and do something about the less-than-happy world at the animal slaughterhouse?
GUNLOCK: We do have an obligation to ensure animals don’t suffer. The recent work of Matthew Scully in National Review examining why conservatives and pro-lifers should take up the cause of animal rights is fascinating and I agree with Scully that there are moral truths concerning animals that are just as binding and absolute as any other. The point I was making in my book about the realities of the slaughterhouse is that people’s ignorance of meat production makes them more vulnerable to alarmist stories that focus on some rather benign practices such as treating meat with a bacteria-killing chemical.
LOPEZ: What is the preeminent food or household-product myth that concerns you?
GUNLOCK: Recently, certain environmental groups have been saying flame retardants and the products that contain these fire-resistant chemicals (furniture, clothing, Halloween costumes, baby products) are dangerous and cause a variety of diseases. Of course the alarmists don’t mention that there have yet to be any proven health risks associated with trace levels of flame retardants with which humans come into contact when they sit on a couch or wear a polyester shirt.
This particular type of alarmism probably scares me the most because I’m sincerely worried that if the alarmists succeed in their efforts to ban flame retardants, we’ll see an uptick in home fires and fire-related injuries. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, in 2010, 355 children younger than 15 died as a result of fires, which is 10 percent of all fire deaths. Sadly, it is the youngest children who make up the majority of deaths (57 percent were children age 4 or younger).
When considering the so-called “risk” of flame retardants, people need to exercise a little risk analysis. They need to compare the heretofore-unproven risk of breathing in an infinitesimal amount of chemical “fumes” against the quite real (and proven!) risk of dying or becoming injured in a house fire.
Flame retardants used to be considered progress. Not long ago, before flame retardants where used, fire was a real fear and major problem. Today, home fires have been greatly reduced, thanks in large part to flame retardants used in housing materials and furniture. Why would we want to walk back such progress on safety?
LOPEZ: Mike Bloomberg does have a point, though, doesn’t he? Who needs a supersized cup of sugar and acid?
GUNLOCK: But that really wasn’t his point, was it? Bloomberg doesn’t just criticize a person’s decision to drink gigantic tubs of soda; he thinks people shouldn’t be allowed to do it. What galls food nannies like Bloomberg is that in a truly free society, we must be free to make both good and bad decisions. I may not approve of nor want to drink a Big Gulp but I certainly recognize people’s freedom to consume large quantities of soda. Just as I recognize the right of people to do a lot of things I find unappetizing, immoral, unethical, and just plain stupid. Frankly, I’d like to outlaw something called “hashbrown casserole,” a dish I’ve had the great misfortune of eating at family gatherings. I’d also like to outlaw any recipe calling for Velveeta and cream-of-mushroom soup, but liberty-loving people must resist the urge to control the decisions people make.
LOPEZ: Would you let your kids get moving with Michelle Obama?
GUNLOCK: No, I’m in charge of my kids. I decide what and when they eat, how much they exercise, how much television they watch, what they read, the toys with which they play, and what time they go to bed. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program does real harm to the parent-child relationship by pushing parents out of the picture, expanding the school-lunch program (which now serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner!), increasing the number of children receiving school meals (it’s up to 32 million today and expected to grow as schools are now required to demonstrate increasing participation in the school-lunch program), and promoting the idea that the school is the central figure in a child’s life for food and nutrition. Study after study shows that parental habits — putting kids to bed on time, limiting screen time, and sitting down to dinner a few times a week — are the real solutions to the childhood-obesity problem. I wish Michelle Obama would spend a little less time scolding the food industry and hard-working school lunch ladies and a little more time reminding parents that feeding kids is a pretty basic parental responsibility.
LOPEZ: What’s wrong with a safe playground?
GUNLOCK: Well, there’s nothing wrong with a safe playground, but there is certainly something wrong with a too safe (read: boring) playground. I write in the book that my young kids get bored at most playgrounds in a matter of moments and end up climbing trees and tromping through large areas of poison ivy and tick-infested fields. What’s the point of constructing a playground if none of the kids find it fun? I also think we shouldn’t be in the business of removing all risk for kids. Some amount of risk helps kids develop good decision-making skills. On the more hazardous playground, my children learn to make better decisions, as in “maybe I shouldn’t jump from this high perch because . . . it hurts!” These lessons can be applied off the playground as well, which helps kids develop into independent and responsible adults.
LOPEZ: Why are alarmists bad for business? Aren’t they looking out for the safety and health of the consumer?
GUNLOCK: No. Too many alarmists aren’t interested in the safety and health of consumers. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Take for instance the alarmists who tell moms that nearly everything in the local store is tainted with toxic chemicals. Thankfully, most moms just yawned and kept buying their favorite products. This annoys the alarmists. There’s nothing more insulting to an alarmist than people’s failure to freak out.
So, the alarmists changed course — initiating a campaign directed not at consumers, but at the retailers. This new effort (I refuse to link to this idiotic and potentially quite dangerous campaign) urges retailers to take things off store shelves if the products contain chemicals (in any amount!). The majority of the retailers targeted by this campaign have ignored the demands — recognizing it for what it is, anti-science hysteria. Yet, unfortunately, a few major retailers have bowed to the pressure, saying they’ll remove some products to try to comply with the campaign’s demands. This is incredibly disappointing, considering this will mean higher-priced and potentially less safe products being stocked in these stores. But it’s important to remember: Industry didn’t bow to consumer demand; these stores bowed to the demands of radical environmental groups. That’s an extraordinarily bad precedent for businesses to set because it shows they won’t fight back against this nonsense. Businesses should respond to their consumers, not radical, anti-business purveyors of junk science.
LOPEZ: Is it realistic to advise limiting time online? We’re increasingly an online people.
GUNLOCK: Oh, it is so important to unplug and spend time in the real world. But I also think it’s important to understand the proliferation of fear-mongering websites on the Internet today. Fear is profitable. It drives traffic. These sites are popular. So people need to carefully consider the sources for their information and add a bit of skepticism while spending time online. If you can’t limit your time online (I have trouble with this advice myself!), I provide a guide to good science in the book which will help people differentiate between legitimate health-and-wellness stories and those driven by an alarmist agenda.
LOPEZ: Your book is largely about discernment and balance, isn’t it?
GUNLOCK: Yes, it is. I want women to be skeptical of the information they’re getting from some of these mainstream sites. I hope women do a little more research on their own and learn to trust their instincts rather than become terrified of everything with which their children come into contact.
LOPEZ: What do you hope your book inspires? More non-green household-cleaner use?
GUNLOCK: Ha. Well, that would be nice. For heaven’s sake, I don’t think those green cleaners really work. Give me the good old-fashioned, knock-you-out, strong stuff. I want those bacteria to die!
Mostly, I hope this book inspires moms to execute some basic common sense, and enjoy parenting and life more. Parents have plenty to worry about and don’t need to needlessly obsess about every time their kid has a jellybean or they uses spray cleaner. Who needs all this unnecessary stress? Surely that’s not good for anyone.
LOPEZ: How can we help moms and dads, as a media matter?
GUNLOCK: The media (National Review excluded, of course!) must be better about reporting science issues. I’m constantly amazed to see radical environmental groups quoted in news articles as nonpartisan sources. For example, recently a “medical reporter” for a major national newspaper did a story on chemical exposure and breast cancer. Who were her sources? Did she talk to health professionals, scientists, toxicologists, breast-cancer researchers, or oncologists? Heck no! She spoke to a representative from a well-known, radical environmental group that regularly posts laughably bad “studies” on chemicals and cancer. As if that weren’t enough, later in the story, the reporter cited a researcher who produced a study so bad that the journal had to retract some of the study’s claims. Has this reporter heard of Google? A simple Google search would have informed her that her sources were on the weak (and anti-chemical) side. But perhaps the worst part of this story is that these sorts of alarmist news pieces will encourage some women to focus on this anti-chemical nonsense rather than the real behaviors that reduce cancer — eating better, reducing alcohol, and getting moderate exercise.
LOPEZ: What are you most grateful for?
GUNLOCK: I’m thankful to be living in the modern age. Despite its many downsides (modern pop music, our thin-obsessed culture, the Kardashians), we have never lived in a safer, healthier, cleaner, more promising time. Friedrich Hayek warned optimists that “implicit confidence of the beneficence of progress” would be “regarded as the sign of a shallow mind.” Fine. Call me shallow. I don’t mind. I believe in the progress of man and in the promise of scientific discovery. Walking that back in the name of “protecting” us is what’s truly terrifying.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA.