Flu and fish-mato.

Conspiracy theories have real public health consequences. Stop it.

Waking up this morning to the Patriots chatter on my local radio (yes, even the NPR station, since I live in the Boston area), I was cheered to see that at least my twitter feed had found a story that was tackling some of the food and health nonsense peddled by celebrities with products to sell — including local hero Tom Brady.

At least some of the misinformation is being challenged by an increasingly vocal science community and getting traction in major outlets. Tim Caufield, Jen Gunter, and Joe Schwarcz were acknowledged by the BBC for taking on the celebrity nonsense. For years we’ve been shouting from our little science blogs and our twitter circles and nobody seems to be able to tell if there’s been any impact. But it’s nice to see sanity going wider.

Besides celebrities, another group that has big megaphones are companies with marketing budgets. Just recently Stonyfield created a campaign with atrocious misinformation spewed by cute children. Natalie Newell — creator of a documentary that gathered Science Moms to help get quality information to parents — was the first to draw attention to this terrible nonsense.

It was also covered by numerous science communicators — a SciMom, a number of scientists, farmers, a food safety group, food press, and a doctor, among others. (But we don’t exactly have marketing budgets — just our little blogs and niche media.) Not only was Stonyfield peddling bad information, they were silencing critics by deleting their comments and calling them names. Truly a bizarre marking strategy.

But as wrong and stupid as that was, what really bothers me about Stonyfield’s nonsense is the downstream consequences of their false claims. The fish-mato particularly triggered me. I was recalling a story by Joe Schwarcz about a guy who came to one of his events: “There are No Fish Genes in Tomatoes

“If genetically modified foods were properly labeled, I could still eat tomatoes,” was the angry remark. I was puzzled by this, but the gentleman went on to clarify. “I have a fish allergy,” he said, “and I have no way of knowing which tomatoes have been modified with fish genes, so I just don’t eat any tomato products.”

What happened here? A guy was misled by the claims of the anti-GMO folks and has been avoiding a healthy food for years — based on a lie. This is one case, but we hear this all the time from the food-fearful that are carrying a lot of food myths around.

The other thing that happens as a result of the lies is that it creates unfounded resistance to GMOs. I have a peanut allergy, and for decades I’ve dreamed of the chance to eat a Reese’s peanut butter cup, or the local favorite food — the Fluffernutter. I have been following the work on eliminating the peanut allergy proteins for years, hoping to be able to test this out. This recent piece made me very happy: This Food Scientist Wants to Save Lives With a Hypoallergenic Peanut. But people who are lying about GMOs are making products with health benefits difficult to commercialize.

Certainly this isn’t the only case of conspiracy theories and lies affecting public health. The other news item in my feed this morning was the severe flu season and people’s reasons for not vaccinating.

Lies about food and medicine, and associated conspiracy theories, are hurting people. The worst offenders are the ones with the biggest platforms — Tom Brady, Gwyneth Paltrow, New York Times, Stonyfied — I’m looking at you. There are real downstream public health consequences to spreading this crap too, even if you aren’t the orginal source. Don’t be a source of viral nonsense. You are hurting people.

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