Gastronomy 101, a blog about food and Los Angeles restaurants

INFO: Skeptical Eating

Recently, I had a comment on one of my past posts that made me think it was time to step away from the pretty pictures and the recipes for a minute and get on my soapbox. The comment was from a "J-Bone" and was appended to my post about a local root beer. The comment read as follows, in response to my opinion on liking Virgil's Root Beer, another local root beer besides the one I was reviewing:

"Wow how can you choose Virgil's crap with all those chemicals in it???? Dr. Tima is all natural and as NO CORN SYRUP!! It's the best hands down in natural soda!! All the other stuff tastes like mouthwash"
Reading this made me think that maybe now is a good time to do a post on skeptical eating. The classical definition of a skeptic is: "One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions." In other words, don't believe everything you read or see, investigate for yourself to find the truth. And most especially, do not make assumptions about what you believe to be the truth, without bothering to actually find out.

Virgil's Root Beer does not contain "chemicals," nor does it contain corn syrup. Virgil's is made of natural ingredients, just as the root beer it is being compared to is. The person who made this comment obviously chose to think Virgil's contains "chemicals" and corn syrup because it is a more well-known brand, but never stopped to read the actual ingredient label. (Or perhaps they are a root beer company rep slagging off another brand anonymously, based on the e-mail I received from the company at suspiciously the same time, but ... it could just be a coincidence.)

If you want to know what is in something, look at the ingredients, don't make assumptions or listen to what other people say about "chemicals." If you want to know if something is good or bad for you, study the information out there to find out the truth as best you can.

Also, don't distrust something solely based on meaningless labels. The comment above falls under the logical fallacy known as the "appeal to nature" or the "naturalistic fallacy." The naturalistic fallacy is the premise that natural = good, while man-made or non-natural = bad. This is simply not so. There are plenty of poisons and toxic substances found in nature, and plenty of man-made substances that are beneficial and even save people from dying.

Make no mistake, ANY drink that is composed of a sweetener, flavors, and water, whether it be cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, or any other caloric sweetener is not in any sense healthy for you. It is empty calories, no matter how natural or unnatural the sweetener used is. The key is not whether you drink a natural root beer, or a coke, or a Mountain Dew, but that if you drink any one of those, you drink them in moderation, as a treat and not a regular beverage.

In the case of foods, natural is often healthier, but that doesn't mean you can take that as a rule. Ingredients that you don't understand or recognize aren't always bad for you. They may be natural, and if they are not, they may not be harmful. For example, xanthan gum is an additive that people often fear. It would be easy to look at this and think it is some kind of "chemical" or potentially harmful additive, when in fact it is perfectly natural--a fermented corn sugar. Xanthan gum is often used in vegan and gluten-free products, to improve texture or to substitute for gluten. Similarly, baking soda is something no one seems to have a problem putting into their baked goods and eating happily. Perhaps if we called it by its other name of "sodium bicarbonate," people would fear this common food additive, which is in fact, a chemical compound.

The best way for you to make sense of it is to take charge by learning what everything is, and whether it could be harmful or unhealthy to you by reading up in reliable, unbiased sources. Don't listen to random e-mails, websites that are trying to sell you something, or your friend who's been going to yoga class. Read authoritative sources and weigh the evidence and don't fall prey to fearmongering, which is most often perpetrated by people who are trying to sell you something. Most of the time it won't be harmful to anything but your pocketbook, but it has the potential to be harmful to your health, and living in fear isn't good for anyone.


Way to set the record straight. I work as a consultant for Reed's Inc (maker of Virgil's) and am a consumer of their products.

They pride them selves on none of those chemicals.

Additionally they put good (has health benefits) herbs and natural spices.

I do not know the other brand this person is talking about.

I do know Reed's inc (and Virgils) make the best sodas in the world, naturally!

PS- I drink the diets because I have diabetes in my family and Reed's uses natural sweetener there as well!

said by Andrew at 3:47 PM Delete

Also: "J-Bone"??

said by Anyanka at 9:23 PM Delete

Yeah! Great commentary.

Also, when it comes to taste, don't assume "natural" will taste better. When shopping, I like to buy as few processed foods as possible, and I prefer brands with short ingredient lists that I can understand. Having said that, I'm always going to put the product to a taste test. Just because it's "natural", "local", or "organic" doesn't mean it's automatically a better tasting product.

said by Chubbypanda at 12:02 PM Delete

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