Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Don't Just Read Labels; Read Books.

There's a jar of sun-dried tomatoes in my fridge that is labeled as having no preservatives.  This is profoundly amazing to me seeing as how the tomatoes are packed in oil.  I wonder what that does?  In the store the other day, I saw a bottle of vegetable oil that is marked as having no cholesterol...  hmm...  vegetable oil that has no cholesterol.  I wonder how that can be?  Well, I have fat-free ice cubes in my freezer, so I guess I've done some amazing stuff, too.

There's a certain thing about the stuff that's printed on the labels of the boxes and jars.  By law, no one is allowed to print something that isn't true, and this is fairly heavily regulated.  So in that sense, everything they say on the bottle is pretty trustworthy, right?  Ummm...  sure.  Of course, true doesn't necessarily mean that something is not misleading or somewhat incomplete.  I could tell you that I have ladies' clothing and undergarments in my home.  This is technically true, which may give people the impression that I apparently engage in cross-dressing.  But it only seems that way when I exclude the crucial detail that I happen to be married, and the aforementioned ladies' clothing is, without exception, worn by my wife.

Remember that when the law says that people are required to be truthful in their advertised claims on the labels, it's also the law that defines just what "truthful" really means.  It's not enough to read -- it's kind of important to have an idea what they're talking about and be careful when you read.

Take for instance, the "no preservatives" label on a box.  Well, I have a box of granola bars that says that...  and yet, it has in its ingredients list...  salt.  Salt has preservative qualities.  But of course, salt is far more significant in flavor than in preserving, at least for a product like this.  But then, a more major ingredient is palm kernel oil.  What's significant about palm kernel oil?  Well, it's a source of saturated fat that remains liquid at room temperature.  Why would they add saturated fat specifically?  Basically, because saturated fat, by definition has all the free bond sites on its fatty acids occupied by some atom, it isn't all that likely to pick up anything new -- that means the product can have a long shelf life without the risk of going rancid.  Sounds like a preservative to me.  Ah, but there's another factor here which is the fact that palm kernel oil is liquid at room temperature in spite of being a saturated fat.  So that means that it also serves the purpose of maintaining moisture in the bar so that it still has a soft and unctuous mouth feel when you bite into it.  This fat is doing dual duty, essentially...  so, legally, it's not a preservative.  It's there to make the food moist, and if it just so happens to provide a preservative quality, then so be it.

At the very least, though, they're not really selling you anything fake here, in the sense that it's still a granola bar, and you still get to see the nutrition info on the side.  I mean, if a beer says it has no preservatives, that is technically guaranteed to be untrue in the literal sense.  Hops are a preservative.  The "India Pale Ale" style of beer was created specifically because people knew hops would serve to preserve the beer so that it could handle long shipping routes without spoiling.  The thing is that hops are also not an insignificant component to the flavor of beer, so in any case, the preservative effect of hops is sure to be of secondary concern.  The use of clever wording and deceptive language, however, is far more insidious when it is applied to something which is technically straight up fraudulent.

I'm sure all of you have gotten spam emails about enlarging your penis at some point or other.  The fact that I even mentioned it here means you might just see a sidebar ad for some such product.  Some of them will even say they've been shown to have real growth.   As it so happens, such a claim may well be true.  But I invite you to pay attention to the wording here.  Notice that it isn't a claim that their miracle pill or cream or whatever actually does make your penis larger.  It merely states that it's been shown to have that effect.  That can have a number of meanings.  For instance "shown to do x" in a clinical trial can be as good as the claim that something really does work.  At the same time, it can also mean something as mundane as there being a statistically insignificant portion of the sampled population in a trial which showed success.  Of course, since most of these ads don't even go as far as to say that such things have been through clinical trials.  So it's down to a matter of merely showing the effect, which can technically be true even if you show Photoshopped images to people and say these are the effects of the drug.  The images don't have to be real -- only the act of "showing" has to be real in order for the claim to be true.

But it doesn't just have to go in that direction.  There are honest and accurate statements about a product that can lead to a comparison which is technically unreasonable, but quite normal to make because people in general are ignorant of details.  For instance, a certain brand of cereal touts itself as more "natural" because they simply don't process their grains very much, and in the course of making the claim, they compare to other cereal flakes and say that they're more processed.  All of these statements are true, and quite obviously demonstrable.  Yes, pressing and drying whole grains is much less processing than grinding them to flour, making a paste, and toasting said paste in a dry oven.  The problem isn't the statement itself, but that most people don't really realize that such a fact is actually quite irrelevant.  The advertisement is simply capitalizing on that common ignorance.  The spokesperson doesn't say that it is actually healthier for food to be less processed, but that he believed it to be healthier.  In fact most people believe this, but in fact being processed or not is pretty meaningless unless you actually know what goes into that process.  How do we know that a pressed whole grain is any healthier than a formed flake if we don't know what was added in the course of making the flake?  For all we know, the manufacturers of the formed flakes of baked dough could have added a cocktail of vitamins and minerals just to market their product as healthier than the next guy's.  But without that knowledge, we don't really have anything to go on, and fear of the unknown predominates.

There is kind of an open question here with this mode of selling in that it leads down the path of people's common suppositions.  Which do you suppose is better between A and B?  For the most part, these suppositions are grounded in half-truths.  There are definitely times when certain things are better than others; certain things are definitely safer than others, and any suppositions about which is which tend to be pretty widely applicable when dealing with things that fall within the sphere of common knowledge.  But once things go outside that knowledge, it really isn't guaranteed to work.  The correct answer is really to say "I don't know."  There is nothing inherently wrong with having preservatives in food.  There is nothing inherently different about artificial flavorings vs. natural flavorings.  There is nothing inherently healthier about unprocessed vs. highly processed foods.  There is nothing intrinsic in herbal remedies that makes them better than any medical drug.  It's all extrapolations based on smaller samples and fear of the unknown.  The problem is not merely that something has been done, but more specifically what it is that's been done.

Better to actually try and find out more, read up on the topic and learn than to react negatively to the unknown out of fear.  To take a quote from the Bene Gesserit litany, fear is the mind-killer.