5 wild consumer conspiracy theories, debunked

From killer microwave ovens to banned 300-mpg cars, here's the truth behind some more popular urban myths

Published July 30, 2014 11:00AM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Conspiracy theories about the products we buy come and go. Only a few months ago, the the Internet was rife with chain mails and social media updates claiming Muslims pressured Subway restaurants to stop selling ham and bacon. Before that, it was supposedly "common knowledge" that the government forced KFC to stop calling the food it sold "chicken" because it was legally not chicken, but meat from a mutant bird (this story seems to circulate every five years or so).

Many of these conspiracy theorists are twisting real information found in news accounts and research studies to help promote larger agendas, and many conspiracies are actually hatched by marketing websites of those who also sell the elixirs that can supposedly cure what ails us. Here are five good ones making the rounds.

1. Microwave ovens kill the nutrients in food.There are many consumer conspiracy theories related to microwave ovens, and together they would make an article in themselves. One, however, is repeated frequently on cooking and on dubious nutrition websites: The claim that microwaves kill food and radically deplete nutritional content.

While microwave ovens do change the nutrient values of food, so does other forms of cooking. But what’s so striking about the claim that microwaves are particularly good at removing food’s nutritional content, is that there’s evidence the opposite is true.

On the Science-Based Medicine website, Steven Novella laughs off the idea that microwaves kill food.

By the time certain foods, like meat, hit your table, even if it is raw, any cells in the food are dead. The cells in fruits and vegetables start dying after they are picked. Anything frozen will also be dead. Some things alive in the food, you probably don’t want there, such as bacteria that cause spoilage.The more important point, however, is that having living cells is irrelevant to nutrient content.

Novella also notes that any heating of food will change its nutritional content and availability, and this can vary depending on the heat intensity, duration of heating, and any contact with water. He says the idea that microwaves are somehow radically different from other cooking techniques is nonsense.

One study often used by conspiracy theorists as proof is easily panned by scientific researchers. A study in the journal Science of Food and Agriculture claims microwaving broccoli severely impacts its nutrient value. In fact, the study is looking at foods boiled in microwave ovens.

Boiling, in fact can have a dramatic affect on the nutrient content of food no matter if it is done in a microwave or on a stovetop, especially for foods containing many water-soluble vitamins. An analysis by the Department of Food Science at Spain’s University of Murcia found that griddling, microwaving and baking produce the lowest losses of nutrients, while pressure-cooking and boiling create the greatest nutrient content losses.

It must be pointed out that cooking, no matter what method, doesn’t necessarily destroy nutrients, often it has the opposite effect. Certain nutrients aren’t easily obtainable when foods are digested raw. When food is cooked, proteins are broken down and cell walls are weakened, making the nutrition content more available. In fact, cooking has been shown to increase the amount of available lycopene in tomatoes and carotenoid levels in carrots.

The Harvard Medical School not only maintains that cooking in microwave ovens is safe, it advocates their use, saying “as a general proposition, cooking with a microwave probably does a better job of preserving the nutrient content of foods because the cooking times are shorter.”

2. Fluoride is a mind-control drug. Only a few countries fluoridate their water supplies to prevent tooth decay: the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, and Australia. While it was done with the best intentions, and has been hailed as a public health triumph by the Centers of Disease Control and the American Dental Association, countless conspiracy theorists are again taking to the web to declare that fluoridated water is proof of government malevolence.

This isn’t anything new. Back in the Cold War era, critics were claiming that water fluoridation was part of a communist mind-control scheme. In recent years water fluoridation has become a pervasive health and political issue in many countries, resulting in some halting water fluoridation altogether. But the debate has not been rooted in conspiracy theories, it focuses on whether government authorities have the legal basis to add chemicals to drinking water that do not improve its safety. Furthermore, consumers of public water cannot opt-out of fluoridated tap water and go with another utility. So this form of compulsory mass medication is actually a valid topic of discussion.

Still, to date, the only proven negative consequence of water fluoridation is dental fluorosis, which can create pitting and mottling on children's teeth, a condition which is mostly cosmetic. Also, there are some concerns expressed by the National Kidney Foundation, which has called for more research into fluoridation’s effects on those with renal diseases.

Some environmental organizations, like the Sierra Club, are also opposed to water fluoridation because of possible health risks and the impact of fluoridated water on the environment when the water gets into the soil.

There’s nothing wrong with public advocacy groups taking stands for or against fluoridation using valid arguments, but the renewed public-policy and health debate is perverted and exaggerated by conspiracy theorists. The most outrageous theory on water fluoridation is that it's being used by governments to make their citizens passive and lethargic, and that it’s virtually the same thing as Prozac (they’re actually  chemically dissimilar).

The modern version of the conspiracy theory claims we learned about water fluoridation from the Nazis, who gave it to Jews in concentration camps to make them docile. But this conspiracy theory upsets other anti-fluoridation activists. Paul Connett, the co-author of the book The Case Against Fluoride says, “We have done our level best to discourage opponents of fluoridation from using this emotive argument. The historical evidence for this assertion is extremely weak. It is sad that the U.S. media has done such a bad job of educating the public on this issue that it is so easy for crazy ideas to fill the vacuum."

The U.S. Holocaust Museum has stated that it has never heard of fluoride being used by Nazis as a mind-control drug.

3. New light bulbs must be cleaned up by hazmat crews. Compact fluorescent lights get a bad rap, even though they use about 75 percent less energy and last about 10 times as long as traditional incandescent bulbs. But many consumers have a notable worry over mercury in the bulbs, though its presence is overhyped. Some websites even claim that should bring in a hazardous waste team to clean up broken bulbs.

But the typical mercury exposure from breaking a CFL bulb is only about 0.07 mcg. To put this in context, a can of albacore tuna has almost 700 times more mercury and an old mercury thermometer, if broken, would release more than 6,000 times the mercury. While any broken bulb should be handled with care, it is perhaps best that broken CFL bulbs be swept up with a broom instead of a vacuum cleaner, which may disperse some of its contents into the air. If the bulb is not broken, there is no exposure risk whatsoever. But even so, many CFL bulbs are now sold with protective coverings to help mitigate the risk.

Still, the argument has been put out there that once these bulbs break or are disposed, they will add to the mercury in the environment. Yet, one coal power plant spews much more mercury into the air when it has to produce additional energy to power incandescent bulbs than what may come out of thousands of improperly disposed CFLs. Even so, many municipalities and retailers who sell CFL bulbs, will take back unbroken ones to recycle, so mercury will not be released into the environment.

4. Federal government has banned a 300-mpg car. Over the past several decades, there have been several conspiracy theories involving various sinister corporations and organizations who have kept miracle cars from the public. One of the most famous conspiracies was the "miracle carburetor” legend a few decades back. Legend has it that gasoline cars existed that got 80 mpg or more, but Big Oil bought the patents and locked them away for eternity.

Later, when General Motors canceled its EV-1 electric-car program and demanded the cars back in 2003, it gave these old urban automotive legends a sense of legitimacy. The movie, Who Killed the Electric Car?, correctly pointed the finger at GM, the government and the oil companies as being disinterested — at best — in developing renewable energy technologies.

The latest version of this conspiracy theory comes from freelance journalist Jim Stone, who recently wrote that Volkswagen has developed a 300 mpg car that will never be seen in America because politicians, bought and paid for by the oil industry, have conspired in hiding it. Stone writes:

You won't find the 300 MPG Volkswagen XL1 in an American showroom, in fact it has even been denied a tour of America because it is too efficient for the American public to be made widely aware of, and oil profits are too high in America with the status quo in place. No tour has been allowed for this car because the myth that 50 mpg is virtually impossible to obtain from even a stripped down econobox is too profitable to let go of, and when it comes to corporate oil profits, ignorance is bliss.

While the XL1 is a real car and it won’t be sold in the U.S., there’s no conspiracy. The XL1 is a plug-in hybrid car that runs on electric motors and a small, 1-liter diesel engine. Volkswagen says the XL1 gets 0.9 liters per 100 kilometers, which calculates to 260 mpg in a test cycle that allows for recharging the vehicle’s battery every 47 miles. But once the battery becomes depleted, the tiny diesel engine can get about 120 mpg.

All told, in realistic driving conditions, the XL1 would be amazingly fuel-efficient, but much less than the 300 mpg Stone claims. And there never was any evidence of a government/Big Oil conspiracy to keep this car from the American market, as Stone has claimed.

Last, the XL1 was never designed to comply with U.S. vehicle standards, as it was never intended to be sold here. However, this does not mean some of the technology from the XL1 won’t find its way into a future VW to be sold in the U.S.

Meanwhile several electric and electric-gas hybrid cars on the market in the U.S. do provide stunning fuel efficiency. The electric Tesla Model S, for example, gets the energy equivalent of 94 mpg (MPGe).

5. The government is covering up proof that cellphones cause cancer. Ever since cellphones entered the mainstream, there has been some concern about their possible link to brain tumors. Many years of studies have led to conflicting and inconclusive results, and in the scientific community there is no consensus on whether their use poses any serious health risk.

With such a high degree of scientific uncertainty about cellphones, the World Health Organization says we should view them as a potential serious risk until conclusive studies about their safety are released. Currently WHO classifies electromagnetic fields from cellphones as "possibly carcinogenic" and advised the public to adopt safety measures to reduce exposure, like use of hands-free devices or substituting talking on a cellphone with texting.

But as the Mayo Clinic notes, it may be many years before we see any medical research displaying a correlation between cellphone use and cancer.

It often takes many years between the use of a new cancer-causing agent — such as tobacco — and the observation of an increase in cancer rates. At this point, it's possible that too little time has passed to detect an increase in cancer rates directly attributable to cellphone use.

However, all of this uncertainty over the risks of cellphones has spawned a conspiracy theory that the U.S. government and the telecom industry are in cahoots and are hiding the facts about cellphones and cancer. According to a study by the University of Chicago released earlier this month, one in five adults in the U.S. believe that large corporations have convinced the government to hide research proving that cell phones cause cancer.

This conspiracy theory appears to have been mostly chain-mail fare for years. Then, in late 2012, Joseph Mercola wrote an article on his eponymous alternate-medicine website claiming that science is deceiving the public about cellphones and that the “multi-trillion dollar” cellphone industry can wield great power by “making sizable political donations and through persistent lobbying efforts that influence and sometimes even directly shape government policies.”

Mercola cites an anti-science book called Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research which says that politicians actively suppress research potential human health risks. “The U.S. government is not protecting you from cell phone dangers,” Mercola warns his readers in a red, boldface headline.

Mercola's warnings have been echoed in several posts by Alex Jones on his website PrisonPlanet.com. Earlier this year, Jones’ site posted a video of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler being heckled by conspiracy theorists asking why the government won’t put warning labels on cellphones.

Despite the loud rhetoric from the other side, there’s a little proof of a conspiracy other than allegations made by two infamous conspiracy theorists.

As for the government’s part, National Institutes of Health have actually provided some $35 million in research grants between 2001 and 2011, according to the Government Accounting Office. In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has echoed many of the concerns of the World Health Organization, even creating an information page from its National Cancer Research Institute.

We were not able to find any evidence of a coverup by the government and the telecom industry, as implied by Mercola and Jones.

By Cliff Weathers

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