Friday, 19 June 2015

Don't panic

You don’t ever need to panic. On all occasions, even you’re suddenly faced with a charging elephant, panicking is usually the worst possible thing to do. Instead you react as calmly as possible, remember your training and do what you were taught to do.

Over the last weeks there have been various stories going around the Internet and Facebook that caused some panic. One particular popular story reported that after an investigation Maggi Noodles have been withdrawn from sale in India.

This started when tests performed by the Indian Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSA) appeared to show that the levels of lead found in the noodles were much higher than permitted. Their report said that the "sample taken by the establishment of the Commissioner of Food Safety [...] found presence of lead at 17.2 ppm". (“ppm” means "parts per million"). The permitted level of lead in such foodstuffs in India is only 2.5 ppm so if these figures are to be believed the level of lead found is about seven times higher than is thought acceptable. This is particularly worrying for parents because excess levels of lead have been associated with learning and development difficulties in children. It’s one of the reasons that most of us now use unleaded petrol.

However Nestlé, who manufacture these noodles, differ. They say they’ve conducted their own tests which show that the FSSA results are incorrect. Instead they say their results “show that lead levels are well within the limits specified by food regulations and that MAGGI noodles are safe to eat”. Nestlé and the authorities in India are now locked in a court battle with Nestlé arguing about whose results are correct and “issues of interpretation of the Food Safety and Standards Act”.

Meanwhile the concern is spreading. Following pressure from a consumer group in Kenya, the Kenya Bureau of Standards also issued a warning about the noodles and they were subsequently removed from supermarket shelves in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. The US Food and Drug Administration has also now taken samples to test and concern is also growing here in Botswana. People are posting links to scare stories on Facebook and so far two radio stations have contacted Consumer Watchdog for interviews and advice on who consumers should believe and what we should do to protect ourselves.

So what do we advise?

At the moment all consumers in Botswana can see is an argument between the Indian authorities and Nestlé over two differing sets of test results and how they should be interpreted. Our advice is to watch and wait but meanwhile until we get more evidence we should be sensible and prudent.

If you are concerned then yes, it’s probably best to avoid using Maggi noodles. Either use a different brand or just eat something else instead.

The first challenge for consumers is the lack of definitive information. The second challenge is we live in the so-called “information age” and many people are getting the information they need to make decisions from the Internet. And that’s a real worry. I think that instead of referring to 2015 as being part of the “information age” we would do better to call it the “misinformation age”.

I don’t know what proportion of the information available on the Internet is nonsense but I’m certain it’s a lot. That’s certainly true of anything to do with food. Many people commented about the Maggi noodle story in our Facebook group but soon afterwards someone posted a link to a web page entitled “What Happens Inside Your Stomach When You Eat Instant Noodles?

This web page, written by “Dr. Mercola”, reported that a researcher had used “a pill-sized camera to see what happens inside your stomach and digestive tract after you eat ramen noodles, one common type of instant noodles. The results were astonishing…” According to the web site “even after two hours, they are remarkably intact, much more so than the homemade ramen noodles, which were used as a comparison. This is concerning for a number of reasons. […] it could be putting a strain on your digestive system […] it will also impact nutrient absorption, but, in the case of processed ramen noodles, there isn’t much nutrition to be had.”

I’m certainly not going to recommend that you eat lots of instant noodles and nor am I going to say you should avoid them. The real problem is the author, “Dr” Mercola.

According to Quackwatch (I urge you to visit, a site devoted to exposing quackery and health fraud, Mercola
“opposes immunization, fluoridation, mammography, and the routine administration of vitamin K shots to the newborn, claims that amalgam fillings are toxic, and makes many unsubstantiated recommendations for dietary supplements. Mercola's reach has been greatly boosted by repeated promotion on the ‘Dr. Oz Show.’”
In other words, like his host “Dr Oz”, Mercola is a quack who promotes pseudoscience and nonsense and you simply can’t believe what he says. The US Food and Drug Administration have repeatedly warned him to stop making unsubstantiated claims about the various treatments and products he endorses. According to Quackwatch he claimed that just one of these bogus treatments, “thermography” could benefit patients suffering from arthritis, immune dysfunction”, digestive disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, Crohn's disease, nerve problems, whiplash, stroke screening, and cancer.

Mercola is clearly a high-end quack and charlatan.

Again, I’m not saying that noodles are good for you and I’m not saying you should eat them. What I’m saying is simple. When faced with claims about food safety you should use your brain before making any decisions. Do some research, find out the facts and only then should you make rational decisions. Until then remain skeptical.

And don’t panic.

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