Skip to content

Ask Kavin 1 — The Demarcation Problem in Food


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/12/01

Kavin Senapathy is a writer covering science, health, medicine, parenting, and the intersection of these topics. Her work appears in Slate, SELF Magazine, Forbes, Skeptical Inquirer, SciMoms, and other outlets. She’s a proud “Science Mom” to a 7-year-old and 5-year-old.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is the difference between science and pseudoscience as applied to food?

Kavin Senapathy: Pseudoscience can be a powerful weapon in the hands of those who know how to exploit it, primarily because it can sound so credible (and because the demarcation between pseudoscience and science isn’t as black and white as some would like to believe). That’s especially true for food, and unfortunately, it’s not always as clear-cut as separating “science” from “pseudoscience.”

Take, for example, the concept of “clean” eating. It doesn’t really mean a whole lot — the FDA only talks about “clean” with regard to sanitation and food safety, and neither the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics nor the Dietary Guidelines for Americans define “clean” eating. Clean food proponents define it broadly as avoiding any synthetic or artificial food additives, and yes, their claims about such additives are rife with pseudoscience and misrepresentations of science. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people who avoid common clean eating “nonos” (I’m not kidding, major food companies like Panera have “no no lists”) are fundamentally misguided. It turns out that these concepts are often more about values than science. Several nebulous food concepts, like “clean” and “GMO”, have become proxies for perceived and real ills of the food system. Depending on an individual’s values and circumstances, these can raise a wide range of issues, including corporate control of the food system, perceived or real rises in the incidence of disease, environmental concerns, fear of harmful chemicals, the well-being of our children, health disparities, and a lot more — all of which are concerns that I share. So, instead of demarcating “science” vs. “pseudoscience,” I’ve come to realize that the most important step we can take is to really define our concerns so that we can truly address them rather than blame dietary scapegoats. For one example, I wrote about the social consequences of the GMO debate with the other SciMoms here.

Jacobsen: What are the common fads and myths about diet and health?

Senapathy: This could and has filled entire books! Common myths include that “non-GMO” means better for the environment, health, or farm and factory workers, or that it really tells you anything about your food other than breeding method. One diet and health fad that I think will become an actionable reality in the coming years is the microbiome — we know that the trillions of microorganisms that inhabit our bodies and digestive tracts can make or break good health, and the growing science on how very integral this microscopic universe is to our everyday lives shows no signs of slowing. But for the time being, claims about products that can harness the power of the microbiome for better health are premature.

Jacobsen: How can the public better inform themselves, and the policymakers create public education campaigns, in order to better combat the ongoing and predictable waves of pseudoscience in health and diet?

Senapathy: The proposed solutions to pseudoscience susceptibility are complex, but one of the biggest missing pieces is that far too many people don’t know the basics of evaluating the credibility of information on the internet, which is where these waves proliferate fastest. I’m also a firm believer that the media’s breakneck pace in the internet age is a problem. An example that comes to mind is the recent, widely-covered study concluding that layers of the body that exist between connective tissue and organs are actually a newly discovered “organ,” called the interstitium, described as “a highway of moving fluid.” Several news outlets breathlessly reported that the discovery of this “organ” could explain how acupuncture works because one of the study authors said so. Turns out that this study doesn’t explain acupuncture at all, and that this specific author has long promoted pseudoscientific ideas about health. I covered the whole thing for Slate back in April.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Kavin.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: