The Angry Chef on debunking food myths
Anthony Warner is a chef, an angry one, and in his new book he wants to bin the bad science behind fad diets.
For 25 years Anthony Warner has been cooking up a storm in the kitchen as a chef, but it is the pseudoscience being served up on a daily basis by bloggers, Instagram celebrities, food writers and food manufacturers about fad diets and the latest clean eating advice that really makes him blow steam. We catch up with him ahead of the launch of his new book The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating, about what’s making him so very, very angry.
When did you become the Angry Chef?
I suppose it started writing my blog in January last year based the indignation I had in the world of food. There’s a lot of pseudoscience in the world of food, and perhaps this has a lot do with living in the information age and the way it spreads on the Internet. It irritated me as someone who’s worked in food his whole life, seeing people just misunderstanding and spreading really bad science.
There are certain areas that are bad - the media, books, recipes and Instagram personalities – and there seems to be no regulation of what they're saying, whereas in advertising or responsible broadcasting there’s a lot regulation and a lot checks and balances.
I could just see there was a lot of information being spread to the public without any sort of filter for whether it was true or not. It used to annoy me and I used to go on about it a lot, so you know, it became something I might be interested to write about and see what happened.
Why do you think pseudoscience is so prevalent in food science in particular?
That is a really interesting and difficult question. I guess it has a lot to do with the fact that food is something that affects everyone and it's something that we all have an opinion on because everyone eats. We all have a sort of in-built feeling that somehow what we’re eating affects our health, which it does to an extent, but I think there is a tendency for people to see causation where there isn't any.
Say for example, if you have a cold and you eat something... you're feeling a bit bad and there's some sort of folk remedy, like eating loads of garlic or something like that. If you do that halfway through a cold and your cold starts to get better then you might think that the garlic cured it. The reality is that probably your cold was going to get better anyway.
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So I think food is something that is very personal to us - we ingest, we like, we think it has this affect on us and everyone has experience of it. You know there’s going to be a lot of stuff out there based on people's opinion, based on n=1 experiments, which is not going to be true. But some of that really appeals to our desire to see cause and effect.
And I also think that if you look at food science and ask a dietician or someone specialising in nutrition, what a healthy diet is, they'll give you a very vague answer. There's no real definitive healthy diet, and so because of that if someone comes along with a really definitive answer, we have a real tendency to believe it. We don't like uncertainty, so when the more respectable scientist is saying 'I'm not really sure just try to eat a balanced died' and giving you quite vague answers, and someone comes along without any qualifications and says 'you definitely need to cut out gluten because its causing you damage' or 'you definitely need to never eat dairy again', its very easy to be attracted to people with more definitive answers and more certainty, even when they're wrong.
What headlines should be ringing alarm bells?
X cures or causes cancer is always a red flag for me when it comes to food. It’s very difficult to establish causation because experiments in nutrition are incredibly hard to do definitively. You can look at stuff happening in a test tube or in a cell, or in a laboratory animal, but it doesn't tell you everything.
If you really want to test the long-term effects of a particular diet, you would need to keep people in a controlled test and feed them that particular diet. You can ask people what they eat, but they often lie and aren't entirely truthful when they fill in these forms. You can also do epidemiological studies, but they have all sorts of difficulties and problems associated with them.
It’s very difficult to get definitive answers, so when someone says 'eating coconut oil will make you lose weight', that’s definitive, or 'eating turmeric will cure cancer' you really need to be wary of those. How can anyone possibly know that? Why haven't we heard that before? Where’s the study coming from? Where’s the information coming from? When you really dig into it you will usually find that it’s vastly over extrapolated - but not everyone has time to look really deep into those headlines. We take information in a very surface-level way, especially these days when we have so much information being thrown at us. So it’s anything really definitive that you have to be careful of.
What is the most preposterous fad that you've come across?
The most preposterous would be the Breatharians, who reckon they can live on no food at all – they’re probably the most preposterous aren't they? Not only is dangerous they must be lying. There has been a couple of examples like this recently, of people who think they think they can live off air, in a spiritual union with the world – I think it’s a bit bizarre, and a little bit troubling as well if I'm honest. But they're fairly extreme.
The one that is the most interesting, and has been adopted by a lot of Hollywood A-listers, is the alkaline diet, which I have a chapter on in the book. For anyone who knows anything about physiology or anyone who knows anything about biochemistry, or any basic science education at all, it is so obviously ridiculous.
The idea is that certain foods alkalise your body while others acidify your body, and you're more likely to get diseases in this acidic state. This idea that certain foods will change the pH of your body is absolutely absurd - if the pH of your body changes at all you'd die pretty quickly - so that’s obviously not happening.
Does that mean there is a fundamental disconnect between the science and the diet?
Yeah, your body wants to keep a homeostatic state, and it will do an enormous amount to do that, because the consequences of getting that wrong are enormous. In terms of blood pH, the consequences of it changing even slightly are incredibly serious, and most of it is controlled by the breathing.
I fear that for a lot of people who haven't studied science beyond a certain the age, say around 15/16, will probably remember a little bit about pH and think ‘that was a bit of science I remember’. The alkaline diet taps into those people who don’t really know any science beyond that they sort of remember pH, so it sounds important.
Think of it like the “science” plot from an adventure movie - they'll put in a bit of science that people vaguely remember to make them feel clever. I think a lot of people will be able to see through it, but for those who can’t it has potentially very serious consequences.
Are there any food trends that you think do have a scientific basis?
Yes, eating lots of vegetables. I have criticised a lot of the clean eating movement over time because it think there’s a lot of pseudo science in there, some of it quite dangerous, but they do encourage people to eat a lot of vegetables and eating a lot of vegetables is a good thing.
As a nation we don't eat enough per head, and we could do with eating some more, getting some more fibre into our diet. I think the benefits of that are really quite clear and quite proven and quite huge. It would be really good if people would eat a bit more veg and, I guess, to a certain extent that’s a trend. In the clean eating movement there is a thing that says eat more vegetables, I just don't like the other stuff that goes along with that.
So it's a matter of getting right for the wrong reasons?
Yeah exactly, that's a very good way of describing it. I mean even the alkaline diet says eat lots of vegetables, but like you said, it’s getting right but for the wrong reasons.
So the advice you would give to someone who's confused by all this is just eat fruit and vegetables and don't panic about anything else?
The advice I give is just eat loads of different stuff. I think that’s the best you can do health-wise. Really try to enjoy food as much as you can and eat loads and loads of different things. We’re very lucky these days, we have such a wide variety of foods open to us. I think the really dangerous diets are those where you really restrict yourself. If you're just eating burgers every day then that’s going to be pretty bad, and I completely agree with that, but if you're just eating kale every day that’s bad too.
Just try and relax. Stress and being stressed and feeling guilty about what you're eating has genuinely been proven to be bad for your health. I'm not saying that as someone who believes it, there’s lots of evidence that stress, shame and guilt cause physical health problems
How is your blog trying to stem the tide of food pseudoscience?
My blog is quite unusual, in that I'm someone who says I don't know the answers, so you can probably look to more reputable sources, because the more reputable the source the more likely they are to have actually researched and not be trying to sell you something. Personally, I think that in general we really need to focus on communicating the best ways to assessinformation. For me science is really about a level of uncertainty, but it has been communicated with a little bit too much of a tendency to say I know everything and I'm the guardian of all the facts. Perhaps if they said the beauty of science is that we don't know everything and that in order to progress you always need to doubt be unsure.
Is that what made you want to write the book?
I'd been told there was an interesting book to write, and there wasn't anyone doing what I was doing online. It's not a very advanced blog, its just me doing something on a homemade website. I just think a book and everything that comes with it has the ability to get that message out there to a wider selection of people and get people talking about these issues.
The messages the dieticians, doctors and the NHS give out on healthy eating is a bit boring, and the messages of pseudoscience are more interesting and more exciting; we can cure cancer, we make you thin, and everything is caused by sugar and something like that.
The challenge I was given was to make the boring message of eat a balanced diet and vegetables more interesting. There hasn't been an enormous amount out there which has done that, and yet there are so many books about diet - I thought it was about time that something came out and tried to redress that balance a little bit.