Opinion Your Views — 20 January 2014
Times’ recent health column included more opinion than fact

By James T. Currie, Alexandria

To the editor:

I am not sure where Marie Steinmetz acquired her expertise, but she certainly put forth some bogus information in her recent column, “Food chemicals and your brain” (November 14).

I respect Steinmetz as a physician, but she certainly is no chemist. Let me explain: There are reasons to avoid too much high-fructose corn syrup in one’s diet, but potential mercury poisoning is not one of them.

Yes, a recent study showed what it called “detectable levels of mercury” in some foods, but researchers were careful to state that they did not find a threat to health. These findings are more a testimony to the efficacy of detection protocols than they are to dangerous chemicals. As our science gets better, we can detect residues at ever-lower levels. Such detection does not, however, increase risk.

With regard to corn syrup, the researchers were not even sure what type of mercury was detected. Steinmetz, however, stated that the “average daily total of mercury exposure could be up to 28.4 grams per person.” That amount, I can assure you, would be worse than a health hazard — it would lead to immediate death.

Likewise, with regard to genetically modified organisms, Steinmetz is on shaky ground. She attacks GMOs generally, based on modifications to create what are called “Roundup ready” crops, such as corn and soybeans.

First of all, the researchers who did the studies that form the basis of her concerns did not conclude that these pesticide residues were harmful. Everything we consume probably has residues of something that — if consumed in high enough quantities — would be harmful. That’s why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sets limits, below which exposure is safe.

Attacking GMOs is fashionable in some circles, but such generalized attacks ignore the fact that genetically modifying certain organisms improves them. Modified papayas, for example, are resistant to papaya ringspot virus. With global hunger approaching epidemic proportions, it is incumbent upon us to embrace technologies that can lead to more food produced per acre.

Some folks — and I do not know whether Steinmetz is in this category — clearly want to return to the bucolic days when every family grew their own vegetables and killed their own chickens after allowing them to run around outside. This vision is as accurate as a Thomas Kinkade painting; it looks warm and cozy, but it’s artificial.

I grew up with chickens in the yard and homegrown vegetables, and I can assure you that most of us haven’t the time or space it takes to grow food and raise birds. I’m just surprised that the Alexandria Times would run this as a piece that’s not marked as opinion. It is certainly not based on good science.

 

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