Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

Kitchen Myths, the book – now available

KitchenMyths_fc_v5  Now available for Kindle, iPad, Nook, and other devices: the book  version of the Kitchen  Myths  blog.

  • Dozens of new myths
  • Illustrated with the author’s photographs
  • Updated throughout

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Kitchen Myths – What’s this Blog all About?

Many widely accepted “truths” about food and cooking are just plain false—in other words, they are kitchen myths. Learn the straight skinny here! See the About page for more information about me, your friendly myth-buster, and this blog.

The paleo diet is healthy

The paleo diet is one of the latest fads to hit the world of dieting. It is supposedly based on eating only foods that our ancestors in Paleolithic times, some 12,000 years ago, would have eaten. Thus, the diet permits meat, fish, fruit, most vegetables, nuts, and plant-based oils (such as olive and avocado) while excluding dairy, grains, cereals, legumes (beans, peanuts), processed oils, processed sugar, alcohol, and coffee. The basis of the diet is the claim that our bodies had, by the end of the Paleolithic, evolved to survive on the foods available at the time and are not designed to process foods that were introduced since them. There are many fatal flaws in this whole idea.

Most seriously is the assumption that evolution “designed” us to be an ideal match for our environment and diet 12,000 years ago. This is completely wrong, as any high school biology student should be able to tell you. Evolution doesn’t “design” anything, all it does is favor the continuation of genes that are associated with leaving more offspring. Thus, a caveman who was sickly and died at 25, but left 12 children, was an evolutionary success and his genes would continue in the population. In contrast, another caveman who lived a healthy life to the age of 60, but left only 1 or 2 children, was not a success in evolutionary terms. Thus, the notion that Paleolithic folks were ideally adapted to their diet is pure nonsense. As long as their diet allowed them to leave children, that was enough.

A second serious flaw is the diet’s assumptions about what foods people did and did not eat back then. There is, for example, quite a bit of evidence that Paleolithic humans ate grains and legumes, but these are forbidden by the diet. Paleo humans did not eat peppers, tomatoes, avocados, pineapple, or blueberries because these are new world plants that were not available during Paleolithic evolution. Yet the diet allows them all. Dietary flexibility was a hallmark of humans and one reason for our evolutionary success—we did not evolve to eat certain specific foods, we evolved to eat pretty much anything. Would anyone care to argue that Paleolithic humans in the sub-arctic zones, the rain forest, the plains, and the tropical coastal regions ate the same or even similar diets? I don’t think so.

A third serious flaw is the claim by diet proponents that human genetics have not changed in any meaningful way since Paleolithic times and therefore the human digestive and metabolic systems cannot have adapted to deal with “new” foods. This is flat-out false. It is well documented that human genes have changed in response to the introduction of dairy into the diet and to the development of agriculture, with the greater availability of wheat and other grains.

That’s strike three, I believe!

As if we needed a strike four, the life expectancy of humans in Paleolithic times was somewhere in the mid-30s. Is their’s the diet you want to eat? Of course, many other factors have contributed to the increase in life expectancy, including improvements in medicine, public health, and nutrition. Oh wait, did I say nutrition? You know, like eating grains, legumes, and dairy?

There is one good aspect to the paleo diet, the avoidance of overly processed foods and of excess carbs and sugar. But, there’s nothing “paleo” about these ideas, they are part of many dietary regimes. So if you want yet another trendy fad diet to waste your time on, be my guest and go paleo.

Gluten is bad for your health

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and related grains (barley, rye, bulgur, farro, kamut, spelt, triticale, and according to some people, oats). Gluten gives bread dough its elasticity and helps it to rise. Gluten has been getting a bad rap lately, a rap that is undeserved. Unfortunately, it has become trendy to avoid gluten, and all too many people leave their brains in neutral and buy into all the scare-mongering that has grown up around gluten (much of which, needless to say, comes from people trying to sell you gluten-free products).

It’s true that about 1% of people have a true gluten allergy (celiac disease), and consuming even small amounts of gluten can cause these people great distress. For the rest of us, however, there is nothing to worry about. After all, gluten has been part of the human diet for some 10,000 years, and there is not a single shred of legitimate medical evidence linking gluten to autism, Alzheimer’s, or any other health issues. Some folks claim to have lost weight with a gluten-free diet. Well duh, if you don’t eat any bread, bagels, cake, or pasta, that will happen! Some folks claim to simply “feel better” without gluten, but that’s a subjective response that may be more the result of eating a lot fewer carbs without being directly related to gluten at all. It’s also the case that when eating gluten-free, it’s very easy to short yourself on the fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are found in gluten-containing grains.

So, if you want to be trendy by avoiding gluten, go right ahead, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you are getting any health benefits.

GMO food is harmful to your health

GMO (genetically modified) refers to crops (soybeans, corn, cotton, and many others) whose genome has been modified in the lab to provide some advantage, such as herbicide resistance, improved nutrition, resistance to insect pests, improved yield, and reduced water need. When GMO food crops were first introduced in 1996, there was perfectly understandable concern that there might be some health consequences from eating foods made with GMO ingredients. However, since then many studies and a lot of real-world experience has shown these worries to be unfounded. Hundreds of millions of people have eaten an untold number of meals containing GMO ingredients, and there has not been a single documented case of anyone’s health suffering – NOT A SINGLE CASE! As a result of this and other evidence, dozens of scientific organizations have declared GMO food to be as safe as any other food – these organizations include the French Academy of Sciences, the World Health Organization, the European Commission, the Royal Society, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Yet, opposition to GMO foods on health grounds remains widespread. It’s hard to figure out why, other than the all-too-common human propensity to ignore facts and believe what feels good (or what fits in with their conspiracy theories). The opposition is also fueled by charismatic hucksters such as Vandana Shiva who travel around spreading lies and distortions about GMO food and making up “facts” as it suits them. Unfortunately there seems no end of gullible people ready to swallow this nonsense (for example, GMO foods cause autism, Alzheimer’s, suicide of farmers, cancer, allergies, and so on.) There is no legitimate evidence for any of these claims.

This is not to say that there are no legitimate concerns indirectly related to GMO crops, such as industrial farming, monoculture, corporate ownership of seeds, and loss of genetic diversity. These are separate issues, however, unrelated to the (nonexistent) health risks of eating GMO food.

A pressure gauge on your propane tank is useful

Many folks have paid for a pressure gauge on their propane tanks in the mistaken belief that it tells you how much propane is left. Me too, I got one before I figured out that it is useless. How come?

In the tank, the propane is mostly liquid. At the top of the tank, above the liquid propane, is gaseous propane. When you open the valve, some of the propane gas is released, and some of the liquid vaporizes to maintain what physicists call the vapor pressure – the pressure at which liquid and gaseous propane are in equilibrium. As long as there is some liquid propane in the tank, this pressure remains the same (although it does vary with temperature, being higher when the temperature is warmer). Whether 95% full or 5% full, the pressure is the same. Only when there is no more liquid propane in the tank will the pressure shown on your gauge drop. You an tell how much propane is left by weighing the tank, but that’s a bother. You can also tell by feeling the side of the tank when it is in use (when your grill is on). At some place the tank will be colder below, warmer above. That’s the level of the liquid propane. Bottom line? Keep an extra tank on hand.

Kitchen Myths – 2013 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for Kitchen Myths. Thanks to all my visitors for a successful year!

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 89,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 4 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Stock and broth are different

Both the terms “stock” and “broth” refer to a flavorful, savory liquid made by simmering ingredients in water for a long time until all of the flavor is extracted, then straining and discarding the solids. Meat is usually part of the recipe, but not always. Some people will insist that the two are different. Stock is made with bones, they say, and broth is not. Broth is for drinking, they claim, and stock is for cooking. It’s true that some cookbook authors make these claims, but they are not consistent–what one famous chef says is stock is another chef’s broth. Let’s face it–who cares? Good stock/broth is essential to many kinds of cooking. Bad stock/broth should be fed to the pigs.

Vegetarians can eat seafood

I have met more than one person who claims to be a vegetarian, but happily chows down on fish, scallops, and other seafood. Sorry, this just won’t wash. Fish are animals, and by definition a vegetarian does not eat animals. No, Virginia, a clam is not a vegetable!

Of course there is nothing wrong with eating seafood, it is tasty and healthy. But, it is not vegetarian. If you eat seafood only (no other animals), then you are a piscaterian.

Quinoa is a grain

Well, it sure looks like a grain and is usually used like a grain, so what’s up? Fact is, quinoa is the seed of a plant in the goosefoot family, which is not a grass—and grains like wheat, rye, and corn are the seeds of grasses. Of course this technicality does not change the fact that it is tasty and nutritious, but it might be useful in a game of trivia!

For the best tomato sauce, always use fresh tomatoes

This seems to make sense, right – I mean, fresh is always better than canned. Or is it? It turns out that canned tomatoes often beat out fresh for making sauce. There are several reasons for this:

  • The makers of canned tomatoes can grow multiple varieties with different taste characteristics and blend them for an ideal taste profile in their product.
  • The tomatoes are grown for canning near the processing plant, so they can be left on the vine until ideally ripe and at the peak of flavor – no need to account for transport time.
  • The tomatoes do not have to be bred to transport well or to look pretty on the shelf in the market. As long as they taste good, they can be delicate and ugly.

This is not to say you can’t make great sauce from fresh tomatoes–of course you can, but only if you have the ideal locally grown and perfectly ripe tomatoes. My point is that you should not dismissed canned tomato products just because they are processed. And, you do not have to buy the super-expensive imported and/or organic varieties. In fact, one of the US’s major brands beat all of those out in a taste test held by a notoriously fussy cooking magazine.

Here’s an interesting Mark Bittman article on this topic:

When steaming clams, discard any that do not open

I used to do this for years, also with mussels. Turns out it is usually a waste of perfectly good clams. An unopened clam may be bad, but in my experience they are usually fine. What I do is set the unopened ones aside and deal with them separately. In almost all cases they are very easy to open with a blunt knife and the little feller inside is just fine. When you do find a bad one, out it goes. If you find more than a very occasional bad one, you might want to buy your clams elsewhere.

As an aside, fresh clams should always be stored in the fridge in a ventilated container, never a sealed plastic bag. They are alive and use some oxygen – not much, but a sealed bag will suffocate them and then you will have a bunch of bad clams!

Sharp knives make cutting your fingers more likely

A sharp knife cuts more easily, so this make sense – right? But, it is not true. With a sharp knife, cutting is  easily done and nothing needs to be forced. And it’s the forcing that causes cuts, when you have to press down hard and the knife slips onto your finger. Ouch! With a really sharp knife, your cutting can be smooth and relaxed, with less danger of cuts. So, keep your knives sharp!

Roasting coffee at home is difficult and not worth the effort.

To the contrary! Since being turned on to coffee roasting a while back (after a visit to an organic coffee plantation in Nicaragua), I regret not having started sooner. If you want better, cheaper coffee for little effort, read on. If you like Charbucks – err, I mean Starbucks coffee, don’t bother.

  • Process: A coffee roaster can cost as little as $130. It looks sort of like a blender and works by blowing hot air up through the beans to agitate and roast them. Add the green (raw) beans, turn on, and forget – it’s that simple. You can vary the type of roast (light, medium, dark) by varying the roasting time and/or temperature. This process will generate some smoke, particularly when making a dark roast, so be forewarned.
  • Savings: Green coffee beans, easily available over the internet, cost in the $5-7 / pound range with a few exceptions for super-premium beans like Jamaica Blue Mountain. Beans lose 15-20% of their weight in roasting, so a pound of roasted beans ends up costing $7.00-$7.50 / pound. Compare that with the $12-15 that high quality roasted beans cost. Your savings will soon pay for the roaster and you’ll be saving money.
  • Variety: My favorite source of beans, Burman Coffee Traders, currently lists green beans from Costa Rica, Hawaii, India, Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Jamaica, New Guinea, Tanzania … the list goes on. Decaf beans are available as well. Plus, you can experiments with your own blends.

So, if you love coffee – good coffee that is – you might want to try roasting your own.

Adding salt makes water boil faster

In fact, the opposite is true – dissolved salt raises the boiling point of water. For the amounts used in cooking, however, it is a tiny amount, a fraction of a degree, and you needn’t be concerned about it.

Slamming the oven door can ruin a soufflé

A soufflé is a delicate creation that rises due to expanding bubbles in beaten egg whites. A sudden shock such as the oven door slamming will, supposedly, cause it to collapse. While this may be a nice plot twist, tests show that it isn’t true – your soufflé will survive a slammed door just fine, as will delicate cakes.

Heavy cream and whipping cream are the same

I was quite interested to find out that this is not only false, but it is defined by US Government regulations. Whipping cream must contain at least 31% butterfat but no more than 36%, while heavy cream must contain at least 36% butterfat. What does this mean to you, the cook?

When making whipped cream, heavy cream takes longer to whip but lasts longer once prepared (losing its peaks and becoming watery). In contrast, whipping cream whips faster but does not last as long.

A more important difference may be between creams that are pasteurized vs. those that are ultra-pasteurized. Both treatments kill bacteria and extend the shelf life of the cream, but the ultra procedure uses a much higher temperature. The result is cream that lasts longer (in the unopened container) but does not whip as well or taste as good. Look for local, pasteurized (not ultra-pasteurized) heavy cream that is free of additives.

Don’t store fresh corn on the cob in the fridge

Fresh corn on the cob is, of course, best cooked as soon as possible after picking, but that’s not always possible. How should it be stored? Many people say not to refrigerate it, but that’s a myth. Put it in the fridge – after all, the chemical reaction that causes corn to lose its sweetness is slowed down by cold, just like almost all chemical reactions. Corn can still be wonderful after a day or two in the fridge, although not as good as really fresh.

By the way, an easy and energy-efficient way to cook corn is to put the husks and trimmings in the bottom of your kettle, pile the ears on top, and add an inch of water – instant steamer! Cover and boil for 4-10 minutes depending on the corn and your preferences. By not bringing a full pot of water to the boil, you save time and energy.

Breath through your mouth to avoid crying when cutting an onion

The crying response to onion vapors has to do with your eyes, not your nose. Using a sharp knife, to reduce the tearing and bruising caused by a dull one, may help, as will refrigerating the onion ahead of time. Keeping your eyes closed will help, but you may lose a finger or two!

Adding a raw potato can reduce saltiness in a soup of sauce

A potato will absorb little or no salt, so this just does not work. Adding more unsalted liquid and other ingredients is about the only solution to this problem.

Acidic marinades make meat tender

Many people believe than an acidic marinade – one containing wine, vinegar, or citrus juice – will make meat tender. In fact, the opposite is often the case. Acid interacts with the proteins in the meat, causing the protein molecules to pack more closely together and thus squeezing liquid out of the meat. The result? Tough and dry steak, chicken, or what have you. What’s more, extended exposure to acid can cause the surface of the meat to become mushy because the proteins start to break down. The rule, then, would be to keep acidic marinade periods short, but then of course the flavor won’t get into the meat very well. My approach is to rely on non-acidic marinades.

The fact is, marinades in general don’t have nearly the effect that many people think because the flavors just cannot penetrate beyond a millimeter or two at the surface. Salt and water in a marinade can penetrate deeper, and the benefit of most marinades is the result this factor.

Tear basil, rather than cutting it, for best flavor

When a recipe calls for fresh basil, you’ll often hear chefs saying to tear it with your fingers, rather than shredding it with a knife, to get the best flavor. Sorry, but nope. The flavors in basil – like any herb – are primarily contained within the cells of the leaf. If you tear it, it tends to come apart between the cells so that less flavor is released (because it stays in the cells). If you cut the leaf, you will break open the cells (some of them, anyway), releasing more flavor. This makes the most difference when you are using the basil raw, as in a tomato salad. In cooked dishes, such as a sauce, it does not make as much of a difference because the cooking gets the flavor out of the cells.

My technique is to wash the basil, pat dry with paper towels, and remove the leaves from the stem. Stack several leaves together and roll into a cylinder, then cut crossways into thin strips.

Coffee labelled “fair trade” is the highest quality

The Fair Trade Labeling Organization was started in response to the plight of coffee growers, who often received dismally low prices for their product. If a coffee cooperative met certain labor, environmental, and social standards (among other things), their coffee could carry the Fair Trade label, and they received a higher per-pound price than they would otherwise (still a low price, but definitely an improvement). Fair trade coffee is a small part of the total coffee market, about 1/2 of 1%, but it allows socially conscious consumers to ensure that the growers of their coffee are receiving a fair shake – a good thing.

Unfortunately, many people have the misconception that any coffee labeled Fair Trade is automatically of the highest quality. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It’s an open secret among high-end coffee roasters that Fair Trade coffee is often of lower quality. After all, the requirements for earning the Fair Trade label have nothing to do with the quality of a grower’s coffee, but only with meeting the Fair Trade requirements. When the price a grower receives for coffee has nothing to do with quality, there is no incentive to work to maintain or improve quality – with predictable results.

I am all for the Fair Trade idea, I have traveled in Central America and am aware of how much work goes into growing and harvesting coffee, and these people should definitely be paid fairly. The fact is, however, that if you are fussy about the taste of your coffee, as I am, and seek out only the highest quality beans, the growers of those beans will have received more than the Fair Trade price for their crop. So, if you like the Fair Trade coffee that you buy, that’s great, but if you really want to help the growers, insist on the highest quality coffee you can find. Hint: it’s not at Starbucks.

A pinhole in a raw egg will prevent cracking while boiling

This myth is based on the reasonable idea that eggs crack, when being hard- or soft-boiled, because the air in the shell expands from the heat. The pinhole is supposed to release this pressure. Reasonable, yes, but tests show that a pinhole really does not reduce cracking. Rather, cracks occur either because the egg already has an invisible crack in the shell, which expands during cooking, or because the egg is being knocked about in the pan by too-active boiling.

You can keep meat moist by cooking it in a stew or braising it

This seems to make sense—cooking meat in a moist environment would keep it moist, right? Not necessarily. A major determinant of the final moistness of meat is how hot it got during cooking. So, how you stew or braise the meat is really important. Cook at a boil, where the meat may reach over 200 degrees, and it’s likely to be dry. Cook at a gentle simmer, keeping things at 180 degrees or so, and the results will be much better.

When making a meringue, you must not get even a tiny speck of yolk in the egg whites or they won’t beat up properly

There’s a kernel of truth in this one. When you beat egg whites until they are stiff, you are actually creating a foam in which the egg white proteins form bubbles with the air you are beating in. Fats tend to collapse foams and an egg yolk contains a lot of fat, hence the origin of this “rule.” It may have had some validity when people made meringues by hand, but with today’s power mixers you’ll be able to make a perfectly good, stiff meringue even if a bit of yolk gets mixed in.

Different areas of your tongue are sensitive to different tastes

I remember learning this in high school – the so-called tongue map that claimed that each of the 4 fundamental tastes were “picked up” on different parts of the tongue: bitter in the back, sweet in the front, sour on the sides toward the back, and salt on the sides near the front. This was shown to be false long ago–all areas of the tongue are sensitive to all the tastes.

And yes, there are now believed to be more than 4 basic tastes. A fifth, savory or umami is widely accepted, and some researhers argue for a sixth, piquance.

Grass fed beef is superior to “regular” beef

Well, if you like dry, chewy beef, this may not be a myth for you. That, unfortunately, is how almost all grass-fed beef stacks up against corn-fed. Y’know, people didn’t start feeding corn to steers just for the heck of it! It produces a better product. Oh, you can find people who will look you in the eye and claim that grass-fed beef tastes better, but if you look closely you might see a bit of a twitch at the corner of their mouth (for the humor-impaired, that’s a joke so don’t get all het up).

There’s no denying that there are problems with the feedlot system, from which most beef in the US comes. This involves both the treatment of the animals and environmental issues. There’s more than one side to this issue, however. The fact is, most grass-fed beef comes from South America, where vast tracts of rainforest are leveled to make pasture for the cattle. Your grass-fed steak may not actually be as environmentally friendly as you think.

Just-squeezed lemon and lime juice taste the best

I used to think so until I read that experienced bartenders like to let the juice sit for 3-4 hours after squeezing for best flavor. A test by Cooks Illustrated verified that letting the freshly squeezed juice sit, covered, in the fridge for 4 hours (but not much longer) gave a “more mellow yet complex flavor.” Doesn’t work with other citrus juices, however. In fact, orange juice is best squeezed just before serving for best flavor because sitting for even a few hours can permit the formation of limonin, a harmless but bitter-tasting compound.

Brightly colored vegetables have the most nutrients

Some intensely colored veggies are indeed packed with nutrients, think for example of leafy greens like kale and chard. But, a pale countenance is not necessarily a sign of nutritional poverty. White beans (navy, great northern) have as much fiber and protein as, say, kidney beans. White cabbage has lots of vitamins, calcium, iron, and fiber. White cauliflower is packed with antioxidants. Don’t judge a veggie—or a fruit, for that matter—by its color.

All ice cubes are created equal

Most of us use cubes made with tap water, using either an ice cube tray or a built-in ice maker. They tend to be cloudy and sometimes don’t last as long as we’d like. But, ice is ice, right? Not necessarily. Home-made ice freezes from the outside in. Air that is dissolved in the water, plus any minerals (worse if you have hard water) are pushed to the center, last to freeze, where the create bubbles and haze. The resulting ice cubes contain less actual ice than bubble-free ones of equal size would, and when they melt you may find a sediment of the previously-dissolved minerals at the bottom of your glass.

To avoid this, use distilled water (no dissolved minerals) and bring to a boil briefly, then cool and freeze (the boiling drives out most of the dissolved air). You’ll get clear, sediment-free cubes that last a food deal longer. Worth the effort? Maybe only for special occasions!

Store tomatoes in the fridge for best flavor

Makes sense, right? Cold preserves food and slows down flavor loss for other foods, why not tomatoes? Turns out they’re unusual.

Flavor development in tomatoes depends on enzymatic activity that continues throughout the ripening process, even after picking. Chilling inhibits this process, resulting in less flavor. Chilling – meaning temperatures below about 55 degrees – also can affect the texture in unpleasant ways. Store your ‘maters at room temperature.

Of course, many commercial tomatoes are so tasteless to start with that the deleterious effects of refrigeration won’t be noticed!

Brightly colored vegetables have the most nutrients

Some intensely colored veggies are indeed packed with nutrients, think for example of leafy greens like kale and chard. But, a pale countenance is not necessarily a sign of nutritional poverty. White beans (navy, great northern) have as much fiber and protein as, say, kidney beans. White cabbage has lots of vitamins, calcium, iron, and fiber. White cauliflower is packed with antioxidants. Don’t judge a veggie—or a fruit, for that matter—by its color.

Kosher meat is higher quality

This all-too-common belief seems to make sense. Wouldn’t a company that is preparing products to meet religious restrictions also use more care and attention in the entire process, and meet more stringent standards when it comes to humane animal treatment, cleanliness, and so on? Nice idea, but not true. “Kosher” means nothing more than “kosher,” which means pretty much only that there are no forbidden creatures (for example, your kosher hot dog is just beef, no pork), the animals were slaughtered a certain way, and that meat and dairy products are kept strictly separate (there’s a whole lot more to Jewish dietary laws, but these are the basics). Being kosher does not mean the animals were raised humanely or sustainably, that health safety standards were rigorously followed, that the meat is fresher, or than the workers were treated fairly. All these things may be true of kosher meat, but there’s no guarantee. There are, of course, many kosher meat products that are very high quality, but the same is true of non-kosher products.

Drinking fruit juice is just as good as eating fruit

I recall when my daughter was playing soccer and the parents took turns bringing drinks for the kids. There were some moms who would go ballistic if someone dared offer their kid a soft drink, but would be perfectly happy for them to drink as much apple or grape juice as they wanted. Guess what, most fruit juices are just sweet, flavored water with no more nutritional value than a Coke (a bit of vitamin C is meaningless) and just as much sugar. In fact, drinking fruit juices has been linked in several studies to increased health risks and weight gain.

When you eat a piece of fruit, you get everything in the fruit – the sugar, yes, but also the fiber and other constituents that don’t make it into the juice. The fiber has the effect of slowing down the absorption of sugar into your blood stream, a good thing. This also has more of an appetite-satisfying effect, making it less likely you’ll crave a snack soon.

This is not to say you should banish fruit juices from your life. But, don’t fool yourself that they are somehow better than other sugary drinks.

Brown eggs are more nutritious than white eggs

In fact, you can’t judge an egg by its cover, or some such. The color of an egg’s shell has nothing to do with the quality of what’s inside but rather is related to the color of the hen’s feathers and earlobes.

A craving for a specific food is your body’s way of telling you that it needs a nutrient that’s present in that food

Nice try, but you cannot use this myth to justify your chocolate or ice cream or potato chip attack! The human body just does not work this way. A craving is a psychological phenomenon, although it’s also been suggested that certain foods, such as chocolate, may trigger the release of “satisfaction” signals in the brain. Either way, however, it has nothing to do with nutrition.

Raw vegetables provide enzymes that promote healthy digestion

Sorry, no, never, nyet, fuggedaboudit. Raw plants do contain enzymes that are broken down by cooking, but (1) These are plant enzymes that have no function in the human body, and (2) Enzymes in raw food will be broken down by the digestive process anyway. Furthermore, those places that promote “live” enzymes are just feeding you a bunch of hogwash in order to separate you from your money. An enzyme is just a chemical (a protein, to be exact). It can no more be “live” than a tube of toothpaste.

Compared to sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is worse for your health

Note: I added some new information to this post on August 3, 2012.

Regular table sugar, or sucrose, (also called cane sugar) is made of equal parts of two simpler sugars, glucose and fructose. When digested, it immediately breaks down into these two components and that’s what your body absorbs: glucose and fructose. HFCS has the exact same constituents in a slightly different proportion: the most common HFCS, used in soft drinks, contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose (hence, high fructose). So, ingesting HFCS instead of table sugar gives you a wee bit more fructose and a wee bit less glucose. Big whoop. To listen to some people, HFCS is the end of civilization as we know it! Yet, many studies have been conducted comparing HFCS to table sugar, and they have failed to turn up any real difference in their effects on the body, including insulin, triglycerides, blood glucose, or appetite-related hormones.

The HFCS alarmists also overlook two interesting facts:

  • The most common type of HFCS, called HFCS 55 because it contains 55% fructose, is used primarily in soft drinks, and it is supposedly evil because it contains too much fructose. Yet, there is also HFCS 42, used in some beverages, baked goods, and processed foods) which contains 42% fructose and 53% glucose – more glucose than fructose. Somehow they are both equally evil, according to the alarmists, one because it contains too much fructose and the other because it contains – what, too little fructose? Oh please!
  • Honey, beloved of health food fans, contains more fructose, relative to glucose, than the worst HFCS – 38% fructose and 31% glucose, approximately. I don’t recall hearing about any anti-honey campaigns, do you?

This does not mean that HFCS is good for you! It just means that it is no worse than cane sugar. More and more evidence indicates that the problems with sugar are not the type of sugar you eat, but the amount. Overdoing it on organic honey is just as bad as eating too much of any other source of sugar.

What about taste? Some people claim that, for example, soft drinks made with cane sugar taste better than the HFCS versions, and they’ll go to great lengths to get it, such as driving to Canada to buy cane sugar Coke. I can’t tell the difference, but perhaps some people can.

Organic food is better for your health

I am all for organic food and buy it whenever I can (as long as the price is not too outrageous). But, I do so out of concern for the environment and for the farm workers. There is, to my knowledge, no scientific study that shows harm to people from eating non-organic food (if you know of one, please let me know). In fact, a close examination of the organic food movement shows some strange inconsistencies. For example, nicotine, naturally occurring in tobacco, has long been known to be toxic to humans, but it is permitted as an insecticide on organic food because it is a “natural” product. The same is true of other toxic natural pesticides such as rotenone and pyrethrum. Yet, synthetic pesticides with demonstrably lower toxicity are banned. Go figure!

It’s also a myth that organic foods retain more of their nutrients—the best evidence says that this is not the case. It’s also been claimed that organic foods are produced with higher safety standards and are less likely to have, for example, e. coli contamination. Nope.

Another myth is that organic food comes from small, family-run farms and buying it helps support the individual farmer as opposed to the huge corporations. Nope again. The big corps have jumped on the organic bandwagon in a big way, which is a good thing, but organic is no longer the province of the small farmer. In fact, at our local (and excellent) farmers’ market, a majority of the vendors, all small local farmers, do not sell produce that is officially organic because of the hassles and expense of getting the organic certification.

So, buy organic by all means if you want, but do it with a knowledge of the facts.

When baking muffins, fill empty cups with water for even baking

Suppose you have a 12-cup muffin tin and enough batter for only, say, six muffins. This myth says to fill the empty cups with water or you’ll get uneven baking and your tin might warp. It does no harm, but it’s a waste of time and has no effect whatever on the evenness of cooking. Why would it? Even with all 12 cups full of batter, most of them are not adjacent to another cup on one or two sides and things cook perfectly fine. If your tin warps, that’s a sign of low quality, and maybe you need a replacement.

There is one scenario where putting water in the empty cups makes sense—if you have already greased them. Baking an empty, greased cup makes for hard cleanup!

Eating grilled meat increases your chance of cancer

Sorry, it just ain’t so. I say “sorry” because there are some people who seem to want grilled meat to be unhealthy—beats me as to why (perhaps it’s the “if it tastes good it must be bad for you” syndrome?). Anyway, this myth got its start because grilling—like some other cooking techniques—produces heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are “reasonably anticipated” to be carcinogens in humans. What this means is that there is no evidence that they actually are carcinogens in humans, but someone thinks that if they keep looking long and hard enough they will find some evidence. As an example, a recent prospective study in 120,000 women found no relationship between breast cancer and eating red meat or the way the meat was cooked. “But but but,” the worry-warts will say, “HCAs cause cancer in rats and mice!” Yes, but we are not rats or mice (most of us, anyway) and what’s true for them is not always true for us. There is evidence, for example, that early humans adapted a digestive system to safely eat cooked food while rodents did not.  Also, just because a high dose of something, like the high doses of HCAs that the experimental rats and mice were given, causes a health problem does not mean that the very small doses we get in our food will also cause a problem.

MSG is bad for you

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is an amino acid that was originally isolated from seaweed. It was found to provide a flavor that was neither sweet, salty, sour, or bitter (the 4 traditional basic tastes). This savory taste, called umami, is not really a flavor in itself. Rather, MSG makes food taste better—it is a flavor enhancer. It rapidly gained popularity as an additive in many restaurant and processed foods.

Then came “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” so-called because people would complain of various symptoms after eating at Chinese restaurants, where MSG was a popular additive. Subsequent to this, a raft of scientific studies failed to turn up any shred of evidence for a health effect of MSG, and in fact people who vociferously claimed to be MSG-sensitive have proven unable, in double-blind studies, to reliably tell whether food has MSG in it. Plus, there’s the fact that Parmesan cheese and tomato paste, among other foods, have high levels of glutamate and no one gets a “syndrome” from them. So, stop worrying about MSG and enjoy your lo mein!

You cannot eat so much that your stomach bursts

We’ve all said at one time or another “I’m so full I am going to burst.” Well, in all probability you were far from actually bursting—rupturing your stomach—but that does not mean it can’t happen (never mind Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life).

An adult’s stomach can typically hold 1 to 1.5 liters of food, the point at which you feel really stuffed and 99.9% of us stop eating. If you keep cramming it down, you’re probably safe up to about 3 liters. Above that, who knows? This isn’t something you’d want to do an experiment on! Your gag reflex won’t help because once your stomach is this distended, the muscles are stretched thin and cannot generate the force needed for vomiting. But, there are medically documented cases of stomach rupture due to excessive food intake, and it is, as you might well imagine, a very serious situation. However, except for people with certain eating disorders, it’s nothing for the rest of us to worry about.

You can scrape surface mold off of home-canned jams and they will be safe to eat

If you have anything growing on the surface of your homemade jarred jam, it’s a sure sign that the canning process did not work to sterilize the contents of the jar. You may think you can scrape it off and eat the clean-looking jam or jelly underneath, but that’s taking a chance. Molds often produce invisible,  microscopic filaments that penetrate into the food and will remain behind when you scrape the visible mold away. These filaments can contain toxins that cause illness. Not worth the chance, in my opinion.

You feel drowsy after Thanksgiving dinner because of the tryptophan in the turkey

No so, but there’s a nugget of truth in the origin of this myth. Tryptophan is an amino acid, and it—or specifically the isomer L-tryptophan—does in fact have the documented effect of inducing sleep. But, you have to take L-tryptophan on an empty stomach, without any other amino acids or proteins, for it to have this effect. I don’t think the terms “empty stomach” and “Thanksgiving dinner” belong in the same sentence! Also, other foods, such as chicken, pork, and cheese, contain as much or more tryptophan than turkey, and you don’t hear people claiming that these foods cause drowsiness.

It’s true, however, that tryptophan may be involved in feeling drowsy after any large, carbohydrate-rich meal. It’s not the tryptophan in the food, however, but the tryptophan that’s already in your body. Eating a lot of carbs causes insulin production, which in turn reduces the blood level of some other amino acids. As a result, the relative concentration of tryptophan in the blood is increased, which leads to more synthesis of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which makes you drowsy. That’s the theory, anyway.

Other reasons for feeling drowsy after Thanksgiving dinner (or most any large meal):

  • After a large meal, particularly one rich in carbs and fats, your body directs more blood flow to your digestive system and less to the brain.
  • Thanksgiving dinner is often accompanied by a glass or three or eight of wine. Need I say more?

So, snooze to your heart’s content after Thanksgiving dinner, but don’t blame the turkey. Just be sure to wake up in time for sandwiches!

Fresh seafood is always better than frozen

Most seafood lovers always head to the fresh fish counter and never go near the frozen seafood case. Why? Because fresh – that is, never frozen – seafood is generally considered to be higher in quality. This is a misconception. It’s true that high-quality fresh seafood is the gold standard, meaning that it has been handled properly, kept at the proper temperature, and isn’t too old. Unfortunately, most of the “fresh” seafood sold in this country does not meet this standard—you see some pretty sad looking specimens for sale! In contrast, much of the frozen seafood is frozen right on the boats, soon after being caught, or maybe as soon as the boat returns to port. The result can be very good quality fish or shellfish, better than the tired old fillets at the fish counter. So, don’t turn your nose up at it.

Bread becomes stale by drying out

Stale bread – yuck. The crumb (the part inside) gets hard and stiff and the crust loses any crispness it might have had.  Most people attribute this to drying out, but the opposite is in fact true. The bread is actually absorbing moisture, as shown by an increase in weight as the loaf goes from fresh to stale. The moisture absorbed by the crumb causes the starch granules to crystallize, hardening the bread. This is why the fridge is a bad place to store bread, even when it is well-wrapped, because low temperatures speed up the starch crystallization process (although freezing bread is fine because starch crystals don’t form at freezer temperatures). It’s also why a brief visit to the oven can improve stale bread, because the heat drives out some moisture and helps melt the starch crystals.

Bread can dry out, of course, but that’s another matter.

To keep coffee hot longer, add milk just before drinking

You’ve poured yourself a cup of coffee and then there’s a knock on the door – the FedEx guy. You want your coffee to be as hot as possible when you come back in a few minutes. Should you add the milk now or wait until just before you drink it? Most people would say to wait, but that’s wrong – put the milk in now. Here’s why:

  1. Dark-colored objects radiate more heat than light-colored ones, so the light coffee will radiate less heat than the black.
  2. The heat loss is proportional to the temperature differential between the cup of coffee and the room air. By adding the milk now, you have slightly cooled the coffee, reducing the temperature differential and the heat loss.
  3. If you use cream or half-and-half, the fat may lessen the evaporation from the surface of the coffee and the resultant evaporative heat loss.

All pressure cookers are created equal

Pressure cookers work because they allow you to cook food in water or steam above the usual boiling point of 100 degrees C (212 F). Under pressure that is higher than normal, water boils at higher temperatures, and these higher temperatures cook your food faster and, sometimes, better. But, how much extra pressure—that’s the question.

At normal atmospheric pressure, water boils at 100 degrees C (212 degrees F). If your pressure cooker raises the pressure by 7 PSI (pounds per square inch), the temperature goes up to 112 degrees C.  An increase of 15 PSI gives you 120 degrees, and a 37 PSI increase in pressure gives you 140 degrees C.  The higher the pressure, the faster your food will cook. There’s no practical way to measure the pressure in your cooker, so, be warned: the timing in pressure cooker recipes may need to be modified based on the characteristics of your cooker. After a few tries, you should be able to get a feel for whether your cooker is faster or slower than typical.

Don’t wash raw mushrooms because they will absorb water

Mushrooms naturally contain a lot of water, up to 90% by weight according to some sources. This makes them difficult to sauté properly because they will give off that water and end up stewing, at least until the water cooks off. But, they won’t absorb more water if you wash them. Of course, some water may adhere to the gills, but that can be shaken or dabbed off.


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