It’s not the turkey, the yo­gurt or the vac­cine

The Labradorian - - Editorial - Thom Barker

You pol­ished off a plate heaped with turkey, turnips, pota­toes, cab­bage, pease pud­ding and all the trim­mings. Maybe you went back for sec­onds. And, of course, it wouldn’t be Thanks­giv­ing with­out a big wedge of pump­kin pie.

You loosen your belt and sit down to watch the foot­ball game, or what­ever, but you don’t get far into it be­fore you’re fast asleep.

“It’s the tryp­to­phan in the turkey,” some­one in­evitably ar­gues, as if it is a well-known fact.

Only it’s not.

What it is is a com­mon myth made plau­si­ble by a ker­nel of truth.

Tryp­to­phan is an amino acid, which is a com­po­nent in the pro­duc­tion of the brain chem­i­cal sero­tonin. Ser­a­tonin, through a com­plex process that in­volves light re­cep­tion in the eyes is con­verted to mela­tonin, which does reg­u­late sleep and wak­ing pat­terns.

And there is the ker­nel of truth. In the past, tryp­to­phan has been mar­keted as a sleep aid, but to knock a wake­ful per­son up, it would have to be taken on an empty stom­ach and in quan­ti­ties that are sim­ply not present in the amount of turkey even the most con­sump­tive of Thanks­giv­ing cel­e­brants can eat.

The far more likely cul­prit, or cul­prits, is the fact that you just spent an en­tire ac­tiv­ity-packed long week­end cel­e­brat­ing with fam­ily, drink­ing co­pi­ous amounts of al­co­hol and stuff­ing your­self be­yond ca­pac­ity with but­ter-laden car­bo­hy­drates.

But peo­ple are very at­tracted to sim­ple sci­encey-sound­ing ex­pla­na­tions of cause and ef­fect. Mar­keters are par­tic­u­larly prone to cap­i­tal­iz­ing on this ten­dency for, shall we say, gulli­bil­ity.

One of my favourite ex­am­ples is pro­bi­otics. A few years ago yo­gurt com­pa­nies stumbled upon the idea of good bac­te­ria.

The ker­nel of truth here is that our guts con­tain a com­plex ecosys­tem of bac­te­ria that is es­sen­tial to our health.

The logic, or il­logic as it were, goes some­thing like: “I need good bac­te­ria in my di­ges­tive sys­tem, yo­gurt has good bac­te­ria in it, ergo, I should eat yo­gurt.”

At least one com­pany even patented their par­tic­u­lar brand of bac­te­ria and an­other (maybe it was the same one) made a 14-day chal­lenge out of it.

Only it doesn’t quite work that way.

The mi­cro-biota in our guts are pretty spe­cific and there is lit­tle sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that in­gest­ing pro­bi­otics is ben­e­fi­cial in any way de­spite the fact pro­bi­otics sup­ple­ment in­dus­try is worth tens of bil­lions of dol­lars an­nu­ally.

But let’s say for the ben­e­fit of ar­gu­ment yo­gurt bac­te­ria is good for you. You’d have to eat so much of it, it would prob­a­bly put you to sleep. Of course, you can al­ways blame the tryp­to­phan; yo­gurt has more than turkey.

Peo­ple al­ways ask, but Thom, what’s the harm?

Maybe not much for the two ex­am­ples above, but con­flat­ing cor­re­la­tion with cau­sa­tion, gets us into all kinds of trou­ble.

Take the ex­am­ple of vac­ci­na­tions and autism. Some­time af­ter vac­ci­na­tions for child­hood dis­eases be­came the norm, there was a cor­re­spond­ing in­crease in the num­ber of chil­dren be­ing di­ag­nosed with autism.

Nev­er­mind that there was also a cor­re­spond­ing ex­pan­sion of the def­i­ni­tion of autism, it wasn’t long be­fore an un­scrupu­lous re­searcher, An­drew Wake­field, pub­lished a study that linked the two things. Nev­er­mind that he faked data and was later ex­posed as a fraud and was stripped of his med­i­cal cre­den­tials. Nev­er­mind that be­fore he pub­lished his study, he was work­ing on a patent for his own ver­sion of the measles vac­cine, which he in­tended to mar­ket as a “safe al­ter­na­tive.” Nev­er­mind that ac­tual sci­en­tific ev­i­dence has since com­pletely re­futed the con­nec­tion.

The dam­age had al­ready been done. Mil­lions of peo­ple con­tinue to be­lieve in that spe­cific dan­ger, or have just be­come dis­trust­ful of vac­cines in gen­eral. Now, so many par­ents are re­fus­ing to vac­ci­nate their chil­dren that we are see­ing a resur­gence in child­hood dis­eases that un­til re­cently were all but erad­i­cated, such as measles and whoop­ing cough.

That’s the dan­ger.

It doesn’t hurt to view any bit of in­for­ma­tion with a healthy dose of skep­ti­cism, even if it’s just Un­cle Fred’s post-Thanks­giv­ing turkey coma.

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