It was my first trip to New York City, 1987 I think, and the scene was the kitchen of the little garden level apartment my sister and her husband were renting in Park Slope. Brother-in-law was going to scramble some eggs for us that morning, which sounded great to me until I watched in horror as he plopped three of the six egg yolks into the garbage disposal. "What fresh Hell is this?" I wondered as he proceeded to beat the remains of the eggs, completely indifferent to, no, actually satisfied with the terrible waste of golden goodness he had just committed. My new brother-in-law had apparently turned out to be some kind of culinary monster.
What prompted that memory was an article I read today about yet another in the unending stream of studies telling us to do this, don't do that, when it comes to eating. As I'm sure you guessed, this one is about egg yolks:
Just as you were ready to tuck into a nice three-egg omelet again, comforted by the reassuring news that eggs are not so bad for you, here comes a study warning that for those over 40, the number of egg yolks consumed per week accelerates the thickening of arteries almost as severely as does cigarette smoking.
Server, can you make that an egg-white omelet instead, please?
Egg-white omelet. Just kill me now.
I've developed a small number of rules over the years for food related studies such as this one:
- The utility of any food study is inversely proportional to the amount of hyperbole used in promoting it. When they resort to scary comparisons to things like smoking it's time to put on the skeptic cap and read very carefully. Or heck, just chuck the thing and wolf down a Hostess Twinkie or two simply out of sheer spite.
- Beware the study that purports to find an association yet cannot explain the science behind it. We humans are varied and complicated beings living mostly in varied and complicated societies. Controlling for all possible factors in any study is very difficult, which is one reason why some foods are good for you according to one study and then bad for you according to the next. Associative studies can point to areas that should be studied further, but until there is a scientific explanation for the how and the why of that association they should be taken with a grain of salt(Eek! Don't tell Nanny Bloomberg I wrote "salt").
- Beware the study that hides all but the summary behind an academic firewall/paywall. Far too often it is difficult to impossible for the general public to examine the methodology and data that underlies these studies. Any researcher who doesn't have the guts or integrity to make his data and methods broadly available for review deserves nothing more than two words: "Piss off." And doubly be wary of studies that not only hide their raw data, but use statistically insignificant results like 10% or 20% "higher rates." I'll have to find a good link again on that subject, or ricki or anyone else feel free to chime in.
And that, my friends, leads me to my completely unprovable but true assertion that 90% of these types of food studies can be blissfully ignored by you and I. By the way, for one actual criticism of the egg yolk study you can go here.
The temptation is strong to try to find some sort of political or financial motive behind some of these studies, but that just becomes a distraction. The science is either good or not. And more times than not it will be bad, simply because our understanding of the variations in the human body, its genetics, metabolism, each of us as individual microbial ecosystems, is at such a primitive level, even though we have obviously learned so much. Take all of those enormous complications and multiply them by the equally huge number of variables in food at the molecular level and we can see how we are just beginning to understand how much we don't know what we don't know when it comes to food and individual health.
All of that is not to say that we can't learn and act on very general truths. Most people who eat greasy eggs, bacon, and fried potatoes for breakfast every day and then sit on their ass all day are not going to end up in the longevity Hall of Fame. But that doesn't mean we should jump every time some study purports to tell us that more than four eggs in any form per week is the fast track to stroke or cardiac arrest and an early death.
They don't know, and until they do I'll tell them what they can do with their freakin' egg-white omelets.
Oh, and that brother-in-law? I guess it was a phase that he grew out of, so he's not really a culinary monster. That doesn't mean I've come to totally trust him in the kitchen though. You see something like egg yolks deliberately going down the drain, well that sort of thing just sticks with you.