In 2011, an Alabama law firm sued fast food chain Taco Bell for dishonest business practices, claiming Taco Bell’s seasoned beef filling couldn’t be called beef under USDA standards because they had it tested and it only contained 35% beed. The rest was oats and other fillers. Taco Bell pulled out all the stops to refute the allegations, at a cost of more than $3 million, including a parody of a Saturday morning superhero cartoon that they already had: Super Delicious Ingredient Force fighting Baron von Bland.
Researching conspiracy theories and urban legends always gets a little wild. Like, did you know that people are diehard Tim Horton’s fans because the Canadian answer to Dunkin Donuts spikes their coffee with highly-addictive nicotine? Of course they don’t, but that doesn’t stop people from believing it. We’ll be skipping over stories like the fingertip in Wendy’s chili (that was a failed extortion attempt) or the mouse in the Mt. Dew (which PepsiCo defended themselves against by proving that the mouse would have dissolved into goo). Let’s start with the biggest name in fast food, the mack daddy, if you will. McDonald’s easily holds the record for more urban legend and conspiracy yarns spun about them — the topic has its own wikipedia page — and these well predate the unduplicatable experiment that was Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize Me.” Listeners of a certain demographic may remember the jingle “You deserve a break today” reaching them the same time as the rumor that McDonald’s stretched their hamburger meat out with nice cheap ground-up worms.
If you’ve been online for even a few minutes in the past decade, you will have seen a picture of a factory machine extruding a fat tube of pink mush, or pink slime as the caption framed it. “Say hello to mechanically separated chicken. It’s what all fast-food chicken is made from — things like chicken nuggets and patties. Also, the processed frozen chicken in the stores is made from it. Basically, the entire chicken is smashed and pressed through a sieve — bones, eyes, guts, and all. it comes out looking like this. There’s more: because it’s crawling with bacteria, it will be washed with ammonia, soaked in it, actually. Then, because it tastes gross, it will be reflavored artificially. Then, because it is weirdly pink, it will be dyed with artificial color. But, hey, at least it tastes good, right?”
There are little bits there that are nearly true. Mechanically-separated meat is a staple ingredient of ready-made, frozen, and fast food, but it’s made from meat cuts, not whole carcasses. While beef producers commonly treat meat products with small amounts of ammonium hydroxide as an anti-microbial agent, a necessity in a high-volume facility, meat and poultry processors don’t *soak meat in ammonia. Apart from the included items being wrong, there are things that are missing, like the fact that McD’s stopped using MSC in 2003. MS-beef was banned in 2004 due to concerns about bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. Mad Cow disease, and that product, “ammonia-treated lean beef trimmings,” is probably what the pink slime was. Another glaring omission in the pink slime accusation is anything identifying the facility in the picture as a McDonald’s facility. McDonald’s went on the defensive, showing how nuggets are actually made and the mushed up chicken, while not especially pleasing to the eye, at no point looks like the pink slime.
Wanna wash those nuggets down with a milkshake? Well, there’s no milk in that milkshake, there’s no dairy of any kind! That’s why the menu says “shakes” and not “milkshakes.” Or at least, that’s the rumor. What do they have instead to make them creamy? Pureed cow eyeballs! Or maybe there are microscopic styrofoam balls for filler. Or lard. Or potatoes. Or seaweed. Or ground-up feathers. There are strict definitions in food labeling and while McD’s shakes can’t be labelled as “milkshakes” in some areas because they don’t contain straight-up milk, they do contain milk via the soft-serve ice cream that’s used to make them, and they *don’t contain any of those other things, save one. Their ice cream milk, sugar, cream, corn syrup, and various preservatives and thickeners. McDonald’s soft serve does contain one item from the urban legend list, seaweed, specifically carrageenan, a safe, natural, and common ingredient. Bonus fact: if your food or drink is pink or red in color, check the label for cochineal, a type of beetle whose ground up bodies have been used as a food color for centuries. I’m not saying to avoid it, unless you’re keeping kosher; I just think it’s neat. It’s probably only listed as “natural color” anyway.
Say you bought more food than you could eat in one sitting and left it on the counter for a few weeks. Hey, we all get busy. Thanks to all the artificial ingredients and man-made chemicals, in bald-faced defiance of the natural order of things, that McD’s food won’t rot. Lots of people have made videos showing the food remain virtually unchanged after days and even weeks. This is a little bit true, but mostly false, in case I needed to specify, and not for the reasons you think. According to Dr. Keith Warriner, program director at the University of Guelph’s Department of Food Science and Quality Assurance, “Essentially, the microbes that cause rotting are a lot like ourselves, in that they need water, nutrients, warmth and time to grow. If we take one or more of these elements away, then microbes cannot grow or spoil food. In the example of a McDonald’s hamburger, the patty loses water in the form of steam during the cooking process. The bun, of course, is made out of bread. Toasting it reduces the amount of moisture. This means that after preparation, the hamburger is fairly dry. When left out open in the room, there is further water loss as the humidity within most buildings is around 40%. So in the absence of moisture or high humidity, the hamburger simply dries out, rather than rot.” So, no moisture, no rot. It’s the inverse of the reason why the bathroom is the only room in the house where we are locked in an eternal struggle with microbes like mold and mildew.
Speaking of moisture, who could use a tasty beverage right about now? How about a New Coke? Don’t know what I’m talking about? That means one of two things: you’re under the age of 30 or the most devious and ingenious marketing effort of all time succeeded. Or failed. Either way, the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” set would want you to know that Coke created New Coke to cover the switch from sugar to corn syrup, to mask the removal of the last remaining coca derivatives, or because people would hate it and demand more of what had been renamed Coke Classic. Pepsi had an effective ad campaign with the Pepsi challenge, a blind taste test where life-long Coke fans found out they actually preferred the taste of Pepsi. Coke replicated the challenge in private, but found the same thing. So in 1985, they reformulated Coke to be sweeter and advertised it as New Coke, hip, trendy, with-it, and now, including TV spots with the supposedly CGI Max Headroom, who you can hear more about in episode 96, Do Not Adjust Your Set. People hated New Coke. They hated the very idea of Coke being changed. There were letter-writing campaigns, thousands of phone calls, and people hoarding original Coke or boycotting the brand altogether. Independent bottlers even sued Coke for lost revenue. It was all over the news and late-night talk shows. You couldn’t buy that much publicity! Or could you? People began to speculate that Coca-Cola had launched New Coke knowing people would hate it, that it would make people want to buy original Coke, and that everyone would be talking about it. They created it to fail. That isn’t as far-fetched a notion as you might think. A decade or so later, when Pepsi launched Crystal Pepsi (can you hear that Van Hagar song?), Coke launched Crystal Tab. Tab was the first diet soda and even though Crystal Pepsi wasn’t diet, people conflated the two and Crystal Pepsi went out faster than Jnco’s and plastic choker necklaces. As for the New Coke debacle being a deliberate marketing ploy, then company president Donald Keough said: “Some cynics will say that we planned the whole thing. The truth is we are not that dumb, and we are not that smart.” Coca-Cola tried rebranding New Coke as Coke II, still an answer to a question no one asked, and amazingly kept making it until 2002. I’ve never understood the staunch brand loyalty around cola, but maybe that’s because I drink diet and they all taste equally nasty.
Let’s go for an energy drink instead. How about a Monster brand caffeine quaff? What evil could be lurking there? [Church Lady] This theory hinges on the logo, three vertical slashes in roughly the shape of an M. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just supposed to look like the claws of a monster slashing through from the inside. Those claw marks form the shape of the Hebrew letter vav, which stands for 6. And there are three of them, so that’s 666. There’s also the slogan, Unleash the Beast. And when you tip the can up to drink it, the cross in Monster’s “o” goes upside-down. I need an old priest and a young priest. No, not really. If you want to spell out “666” in Hebrew, it’s not literally “vav, vav, vav.” In Hebrew, it’s written as “six hundred and sixty-six,” which is represented by the letters “samech resh tav vav.” Monster is only a harbinger of evil if you think heartburn and shaking hands are the devil’s work.
Maybe we’ll just stick to water, good, pure, natural water. Oh, you know somebody has a conspiracy theory for this, too, and it’s the gold standard — government mind control. The well runs deep on this water-based conspiracy, but it’s not the water, it’s the flouride. Fluoride helps to strengthen tooth enamel and healthy teeth are an underappreciated part of overall health– you need teeth to chew up wholesome and sustaining food. When the US government began adding fluoride to a portion of America’s public water supplies in the early 1940s, with it came a deluge of conspiracies. Some skeptics believed fluoridation was a Communist plot to infiltrate our precious bodily fluids and control our minds. The Cold War that was right around the corner did nothing to quell that belief. To this day, people still argue that fluoride is toxic and the government is using it to purposely damaging parts of our brains to make Americans less intelligent and more docile. They might be half right there. Others simply object because fluoridated water is medication that you are given unethically, whether you need it or want it. There’s even debate as to its effectiveness, though 9 out of 10 dentists agree that it helps prevent cavities. Where do they get these outlier dentists and is there a master list of them somewhere?
Circling back to Hebrew, we have a markedly less fun conspiracy theory– the Kosher tax or the Jewish tax. This isn’t a tax on Jews, but a nefarious plot by the Elder of Zion, because of course it is. Adherents to this idea, many of them anti-semites and white nationalists, claim that the kosher designation on food means that a portion of the price goes to Zionist causes, the state of Isreal, or straight into the pockets of rabbis. The one rabbi I know personally makes for an admittedly small data set, but I don’t think he’s seeing any of the money from the sale of Manischewitz and matzot. Common off-shoot ideas include: because the consumers who prefer kosher foods include not only Jews, but also Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, and even Mormons, food companies actively seek kosher certification to increase market share and profitability; the fees collected support the certifying organizations themselves; companies are extorted to get kosher certification or risk a boycott. University of Pittsburgh professor of sociology Kathleen M. Blee reported that some racist groups encourage consumers to avoid this “Jewish tax” by boycotting kosher products. That would mean boycotting a lot of things, everything from instant Folgers Coffee to Kellogg’s cereal, Jiff Peanut Butter to Trader Joe’s tea, even the Glad sandwich bags. Dig around your pantry, I’ll wait. You’re looking for a K for kosher, a U or U in a circle, which means made under the supervision of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, or “Parve” is Yiddish for “neutral,” meaning it contains neither milk nor meat, as kosher guidelines or kashrut forbids mixing meat and dairy. In case I needed to say it specifically, there’s no such thing as a Kosher tax.
One thing I do want to say specifically is welcome to the newest members of patreon.com/yourbrainonfacts, where the latest episode of the patron-exclusive show Spot the Lie posted a few days ago: welcome Kaylee, Edward, Cupcake Queen, Scott, and Michael M. Today’s topic was voted on by our patrons, narrowly edging out a subject I might well do for next week, since there’s clearly interest.
There was no Mystery Monday last week, since it was a rerun. The winner two weeks ago was Michelle Barkes. The first person who correctly guesses the topic from the three clues each Monday on URL’s gets stickers. Sorry, patrons, but you can’t win on weeks where you voted on the topic, obviously.
Over in the Brainiac Breakroom, Terel shared a very timely video, the history of toilet paper, and Jennifer bestowed me with a most singular honor, she named her new car after me! I guess that makes it my god-car and I’m just pickled tink about it.
How many legs does a chicken have? Two, unless it comes from a KFC farm, where they genetically engineer chickens to have four or more legs for maximum profit and no pesky beaks to damage each other with. You can even see a picture of one of their chickens in our show notes. Better living through chemistry. From a blog on the subject, not as a source of information, but to give you a sense of what some people thought and probably still think:
“First of all, has anybody noticed that just recently, the company has changed their name? Kentucky Fried Chicken has become KFC. Does anybody know why? We thought the real reason was because of the “FRIED” food issue. It’s not. The reason why they call it KFC is because they can not use the word chicken anymore. Why? KFC does not use real chickens. They actually use genetically manipulated organisms. These so called “chickens” are kept alive by tubes inserted into their bodies to pump blood and nutrients throughout their structure. They have no beaks, no feathers, and no feet. Their bone structure is dramatically shrunk to get more meat out of them. This is great for KFC because they do not have to pay so much for their production costs. There is no more plucking of the feathers or the removal of the beaks and feet. The government has told them to change all of their menus so they do not say chicken anywhere. If you look closely you will notice this. Listen to their commercials, I guarantee you will not see or hear the word chicken. I find this matter to be very disturbing. I hope people will start to realize this and let other people know. Please forward this message to as many people as you can.” He did everything but put “Wake up, sheeple!” in all caps.
The company didn’t let those allegations stand, at least not in all markets. In 2013, A Shanghai court fined three tech firms about $100K for helping spread the story and pictures of allegedly deformed franken-birds with six wings and eight legs. Ym Brands, KFC’s parent company, had been seeking about three times as much in damages, but said that they were pleased with the outcome.
There is one amazing tale involving KFC that sounds ridiculously, ludicrously made-up, but is actually true: fried chicken smuggling via underground tunnels. The wait is long, food is cold and it costs $27 rather than the usual $11.50 for a bucket, but for some people in Gaza, it’s worth it. There are no name-brand fast-food franchises on this 140-square-mile coastal strip of 1.7 million Palestinians, as many as a third of whom might be unemployed. The entry and exit of goods and people remain restricted, but one enterprising man saw an opportunity to make money with his bizarre version of Uber Eats. (Side note: this episode came out during the Covid-19 crisis, so I’m only speaking to people listening to it when it’s fresh: If you order *anything* to be delivered to save yourself from going out and risking exposure, you tip that person like your everlasting soul depends on it.)
It takes more than four hours for the KFC meals to make the trip from a franchise in El Arish, Egypt, a journey that involved two taxis, an international border, and a smuggling tunnel, all coordinated from a small shop called Yamama. “It’s our right to enjoy that taste the other people all over the world enjoy,” said the entrepreneur, Khalil Efrangi, who started Yamama a few years ago with a fleet of motorbikes ferrying food from Gaza restaurants, the first such delivery service here. Breaking the blockade is seen as part of resisting the Israeli enemy, which is as deep into Middle East politics as we’re getting, I promise. The hundreds of illegal smuggle tunnels in the region are used to move obvious things, like weapons and people, but also luxury goods, like high-end watches and iPhones, and now fast food. It gives people a sense of empowerment and control over their lives, even when that agency manifests as fried chicken.
Name three things that symbolize the 1970’s: bell bottoms, the gas crisis, and fondue parties. Half a dozen people sitting around a chafing dish, spending two hours cooking a few cubes of meat and dipping bread in cheese was all the rage. Looking back, why? Even in the decade of the pet rock, how did fondue become so popular that newlyweds were practically guaranteed to get at least one fondue set, if not two? It was a conspiracy by the Swiss Cheese Union! No, seriously. This one’s real.
Never heard of the Swiss Cheese Union? That’s not too surprising. After WWI, cheese consumption in Europe was at an all-time low. Cheesemakers in Switzerland banded together to set the prices of milk and cheese, limit the types and amounts of cheeses that could be made, and bring smaller operations to heel or run them out of business, mafia-style. The Schweizer Käseunion was basically a curd cartel. The Swiss Cheese Union mandated that cheese production be limited to only three varieties of cheese: Emmentaler, Gruyère, and Sbrinz. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Swiss Cheese Union wanted to not only boost supply of the country’s cheese inventory, but also increase demand for it.
How do you convince people to spend their hard-earned money on high fat food? How do they get us to buy anything — advertising. Marketing gobs of melted cheese as a “healthy food from the Alps,” the ads showed good-looking people having fun around a fondue pot. Fondue quickly became part of the Swiss identity, before spreading across Europe and the world. But fads don’t last and by the 90’s, fondue pots, inevitably missing at least one fork, only came out of the cabinet to be put on a yard sale table and the cartel itself was collapsing. It took nearly a century, but the cheesemakers of Switzerland were again free to make whatever cheese they damn well pleased.
Speaking of a small group of influencers, let me tell you about Big Sugar. [shudder] I feel like a conspiracy theorist just saying that. Too much of anything is unhealthy, we can all agree on that, but this conspiracy holds that sugar is actually much worse for us than we think, that the government knows this, and that it’s been covering it up for decades.
Low-fat, low-fat, if you want to lose weight, you’ve got to eat low-fat foods. …Right? In the early 20th century, doctors began to see a rise in Americans with heart disease, a condition that’s as ubiquitous as [ ], but wasn’t a statistically significant thing before the turn of the last century. The public took notice in 1955 when President Dwight Eisenhower survived a heart attack, though considering his stressful job, famous temper, and *four pack a day smoking habit, it couldn’t be blamed entirely on his diet. What followed was the research scientist version of Dueling Banjos. On one side, you had Ancel Keys, who declared that fat makes you fat and prone to heart disease, though, from 1959 to now, he’s been accused of cherry-picking his data, only reporting findings that upheld his theory. This is called confirmation bias, btw. On the other side was an Australian scientist and professor of nutrition, who wrote in his 1972 book, Pure White and Deadly, “If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive, that material would promptly be banned.” He put the reticle on sugar, not fat, as the prime cause of obesity and associated ailments like diabetes and heart disease.
Keys wasn’t the only scientist to come out in the fat-bad, sugar-good camp. In the 60’s, the sugar industry, which had deep pockets even then, basically paid scientists to agree with Keys’ findings. Yudkin pointed out that the rise in heart disease correlated to the widespread availability of refined white sugar. We’d been eating animal and plant-based fats since the dawn of time, but had only had white sugar on every table since the industrial revolution. Keys publicly ridiculed Yudkin’s research. Yudkin tried to clue people in to the dangers of sugar right up to his retirement, but no one would listen. By that point, the public accepted what they’d been metaphorically fed.
The FDA recommended a low-fat in 1980, thanks in no small part to sugar producers making sure there were scientists on crucial health panels that would toe their party line. Food manufacturers churned out low-fat versions of everything. And we’ve all gotten skinnier since 1980. If this were a TV news segment, this is where I’d roll all the footage of overweight people walking around in public, shot from the neck down. There’s one problem with taking fat out of food. Fat carried flavor. Without it, you need something else to make the food appealing, and that something is almost invariably sugar. Even with the rise of no-sugar, low-carb, no-carb diets, sugar producers continue to fund bad science to prove that fat is the enemy and it’s a-okay for them to keep dumping sugar into food by the truckload.
At the risk of sounding like I’ve got a bee in my tin-foil bonnet, but lobbyist really do affect sweeping changes, or a lack of change, in our lives. Another example is pennies. Pennies are worthless. Literally. They cost more to produce than their face value. New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden don’t even use them anymore. So why do we? One key reason is the zinc lobby. Bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing. Neither did I. But pennies are 97.5% zinc with a 2.5% coating of copper and that zinc comes exclusively from the Jarden Corporation, who spend a lot of money convincing politicians to block any effort to get rid of pennies. But back to the topic of food…which you can’t get out of a vending machine if you have pennies. Sorry, sorry, it’s just really stupid once you look into it.
Another ‘big business’ conspiracy theory involves the 2016 string of E. Coli outbreaks at Chipotle restaurants across the country. Stores closed for deep-cleaning and staff retraining. As the bacteria levels and public fervor died down, the conspiracy theories started rolling in. The basic premise is this: Chipotle is a vocal opponent of GMO’s, genetically modified organisms and the GMO mega-corporations, like Mondanto, dubbed the “bio-tech mafia,” purposefully contaminated Chipotle’s meat with e.coli bacteria in an attempt to put them out of business.
The rumors can be traced back to a website called REALfarmacy, where writer Mike Adams asserted that “Chipotle’s e.coli outbreaks are not random chance. They are the result of the biotech industry unleashing bioterrorism attacks against the only fast food company that has publicly denounced GMOs.” Adams, the self-dubbed “Health Ranger,” is the editor of Natural News, which runs articles on things like the benefits of coconut oil, sprinkled with chemtrail-level conspiracy theories. What is the Health Ranger’s evidence? Oh, he’s got evidence. “How do we know? The CDC has already admitted that some of these e.coli outbreaks involve a ‘rare genetic strain’ of e.coli not normally seen in foods. Furthermore, we also know the track record of the biotech industry engaging in the most criminal, dirty, sleazebag tactics imaginable against any person or company that speaks out against GMOs.” Okay, maybe “evidence” was a bit generous. Adams backs his claim by saying that the biotech mafia also went after anti-GMO daytime TV host Dr. Oz. Dr. Oz, who said amalgam dental fillings release mercury, apple juice contains dangerous levels of arsenic, and had to testify on Capitol Hill about his endorsement of diet products, that guy. Adams claims that Dr. Oz came under attack for his non-GMO stance and “had his own team investigate the source of the attacks and found they were all biotech industry shills, some with felony criminal records and long histories of dubious propaganda activities targeting anti-GMO activists.” One tiny problem with that quote-evidence-unquote: Fr. Oz had actually come out in favor of GMO’s, so if anything, he’d be one of those shills.
Adams’ articles spread around the internet at the speed of inflammatory BS. A writer for Thrillist.com reached out to Chipotle for comment and was politely, but curtly, told: “We have seen some of those conspiracy theories, but haven’t seen any evidence to support them.”
That writer, Wil Fulton, also consulted food historian Rachel Laudan, who said, “Most of the people doing GMO, which of course goes far beyond Monsanto, are actively trying to improve their public image… something like this would be completely against their self-interest….There are plenty of stories about fraud in the history of the food industry but I can’t think of anything where you have a major food corporation undercover sabotaging another one. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, but I follow food history fairly closely… and I can’t think of anything.” And she pointed out one thing that’s good to bear in mind when you’re reading things on the internet. “Before anyone takes it seriously, the burden of proof is on him — or anyone — to come up with some actual evidence. Before that, it can’t be believed.” Something to think about before you hit Share.
Side note: GMO is such a broad term as to be almost useless. Sure it means things like goats with spider genes so they producer spider silk in their milk, which is a real thing, link in the show notes, but it also means chickens that lay eggs almost every day, as opposed to bi-weekly or monthly like their ancestors, thanks to selective breeding that started long before Gregor Mendal and his pea plants.
This episode is running way long, so let’s quickly run-down some of old wive’s tales about food.
Go ahead and drink milk when you have a cold; it won’t cause your body to generate more phlegm. A 2018 review of the scientific literature concluded there was no meaningful connection between milk and upper respiratory mucus.
Don’t blame your teenager’s pizza and potato chip diet for their acne. That’s more down to their hormone and genetic predisposition. American Academy of Dermatology study found no link between acne and junk foods such as soda, chocolate, and potato chips.
And don’t blame spicy food for your ulcer. You may remember from the episode Physician, Test Thyself from Jan 2019 that ulcers are caused by helicobacter pylori and not stress, alcohol, spicy foods, or smoking. So you can’t blame it on your teenager either.
Swallow that gum, if you’re so inclined. It won’t stay in your body for seven years or stick to your skeleton or any other nonsense we’ve been fed. The gum will exit your body on the usual schedule. You wouldn’t want to make a daily habit of it, though, or it could lead to constipation. Still better than sticking it under the desk.
Also, swimming after eating doesn’t cause fatal muscle cramps, Mikey from the Life cereal commercial didn’t die from eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda, neither will it kill you to drink Coke and eat Mentos, you don’t get a free Tootsie Pop because you found a wrapper with a picture of a Native American and a star, Gerber never offered free savings bonds and Humphrey Bogart wasn’t the model for the Gerber baby, Twinkies don’t last forever, they’re good for about six weeks, and teenage girls aren’t inserting vodka-soaked tampons to get a buzz, trying to insert a soaking wet tampon would be like trying to put an oyster in a coin slot.
And that’s…. With Taco Bell coming out swinging to prove that their seasoned beef is in fact 88% beef, the Alabama law firm knuckled under and withdrew their case, saying that all they’d wanted was the product to be labeled properly, which sounds like the classic “it’s not the money, it’s the principal.” Taco Bell has also had to deal with rumors that their beef is “Grade D, but edible.” Some tellings even claim it was labeled, “pet food only” or “Grade D — Unfit For Human Consumption — Suitable For Prisoners and Students.” Taco Bell didn’ really have to defend themselves against this particular urban legend. Meat isn’t graded on a scale using letters. The actual system is Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner. I didn’t know about those bottom four categories and I’m going to do my best to keep it that way. Remember…Thanks…