April 11, 2023

Food Fact or Fudge?

— How many Americans still believe in popular food myths?

Restaurant Intelligence Platform, boam has conducted a new survey of 1,000+ adults across 50 states and Washington D.C., which uncovered interesting insights into peoples’ beliefs of popular food-related myths:

  • The average person believed 5.8 out of 11 food myths when presented with a list, of which they were asked to select all those they thought were true.
  • The most commonly believed food myths were:
    1. Milk will make your bones strong (63% thought this was true).
    2. Turkey makes you sleepy (45% thought this was true).
    3. Drinking coffee makes you dehydrated (44% thought this was true).
  • Washington D.C. emerged in 1st place as respondents believed the fewest average number of food myths (3).
  • The Golden State emerged in last place with Californians having believed the most food myths on average (10.42).

Food Myths: Busted

Does turkey have the power to make you hit the hay? Is celery a negative-calorie food?
Welcome to the world of food myths, where stories about the magic of certain ingredients have been passed down through generations. From the old belief that carrots will help you see in the dark (which began during WWII); to avoiding swallowing fruit seeds lest a garden grows in your belly, this survey sought to uncover if there were food myths that people still stand by today.

To separate fudge from fact, boam - a Restaurant Intelligence Platform - more than 1,000 people across 50 states, as well as Washington D.C., to uncover how many still believe in commonly-known food myths that have been passed down through generations. From a list of the below food-related myths, the survey asked respondents to select all the statements they thought were true. The average person believed 5.8 out of 11 food myths.

The below table shows the full list of food myths presented to survey respondents, as well as a review of whether it has been debunked, or proven as true:

Food MythFood Fact
Spinach will make you strong like Popeye
Spinach contains high levels of vitamins and nutrients, however, it will not give you superhuman strength.
If you swallow seeds, they will grow in your stomach
It's a misconception to avoid fruit seeds. Swallow those pesky watermelon pips - they're a menace to pick out!
Eating carrots helps you see in the dark
Carrots aid eyesight, but the WWII myth that they improve night vision was used by the British Royal Air Force to conceal their new radar technology.
Drinking milk will make your bones strong
Milk alone cannot ensure strong bones, as bone health is affected by factors like genetics, exercise, and nutrition. Milk can, however, aid bone density as it contains calcium.
The 5-second rule applies when you drop food
The 5-second food drop rule is an unhygienic myth - some bacteria can transfer to fallen food in under a second!
Coffee stunts your growth
Coffee doesn't hinder your height growth. Your height primarily depends on genetics, with nutrition having a minor impact.
Celery is a negative-calorie food
Celery is not a negative-calorie food, contrary to the misconception that it takes more energy to chew and digest than it contains.
Turkey makes you sleepy
Post-Thanksgiving fatigue isn't solely caused by tryptophan in turkey; other foods also contain it. The real cause is likely the combination of a large meal and alcohol.
It takes 7 years to digest gum
Swallowing gum won't take 7 years to digest - it's processed similarly to any other food by your body.
An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Eating an apple a day may be a nutritious snack, but it won't replace the need for regular medical checkups.
Coffee makes you dehydrated
While caffeine in coffee can act as a diuretic, it's unlikely to cause dehydration.

Most Popular Food Myths in the U.S.

The graph below shows the most popular food myths in America according to the number of people who believed them to be true:

Fig 1.

The most popular food myth believed by Americans was revealed to be that drinking milk will make your bones strong. Considering 22 states have adopted milk as their official drink.

The second most commonly believed food myth was that eating turkey makes you sleepy. Funnily enough, a study by Sleep Foundation found that the average American actually loses 11 minutes and 14 seconds of sleep on Thanksgiving, which is the time when people typically consume the most turkey!

Ranking 3rd in terms of the most popular myths believed was the idea that coffee makes you dehydrated. The average American consumes 3.1 cups of coffee per day, which is not nearly enough caffeine to result in dehydration. However, it appears there may be a significant number of coffee drinkers who believe they are dehydrated due to their caffeine habits!

Number of Food Myths Believed Across the U.S.

Each state and Washington D.C. was ranked based on the average number of food myths believed by respondents. Those which ranked highest believed the fewest number of food myths on average, and those which ranked lowest believed the highest number.

In 1st place, Washington D.C. respondents believed the lowest number of food myths - an average of 3, while California emerged in last position after believing the highest number of food myths (10.42).

The below map shows the average number of food myths (out of 11) believed across each state, as well as Washington D.C.:

Fig 2.

Food Myth Origins

Spinach will make you strong like Popeye

The "Spinach Popeye Iron Decimal Error Story”: The claim that the creator of Popeye was misled by a decimal place error in research about the iron content of spinach is not true. E. Segar chose spinach as it contains high amounts of Vitamin A, and not because of its iron content.

The idea that there was a decimal point error was investigated by Dr. Mike Sutton in 2010 and found to be false. While there was a large discrepancy in the iron content of spinach in the research, it was not due to a misplaced decimal point but rather differences in how the iron was measured (for example, using wet or dry spinach). Neither value was incorrect, and it was pure coincidence that the vast difference between the two looked to be a decimal point error.

If you swallow seeds, they will grow in your stomach

The origins of this myth are undetermined, however, it is untrue that seeds can sprout inside any living being's stomach, as the environment is too acidic and inhospitable. The tough seed coating can withstand stomach acid and pass through the digestive system.

Eating carrots helps you see in the dark

During World War II, the British Royal Air Force spread the myth that their pilots had excellent night vision because of their high consumption of carrots. This was actually a cover-up for their use of new radar technology. Although carrots are a good source of vitamin A, which is important for eye health and can prevent night blindness, they do not improve vision beyond normal levels. A balanced diet with vitamin A-rich foods can help maintain healthy eyesight.

Drinking milk will make your bones strong

The belief that we need multiple servings of milk every day may be linked to the well-known “Got Milk?” advertising campaign, which originated in the early 1990s. Prior to this campaign, national milk consumption had declined by over 20% over the previous two decades. The California Milk Processor Board (CMPB) hired an ad exec named Jeff Manning to help rebrand the beverage.

After extensive research, it was found that people were dining out more and skipping the homemade meals that would have been accompanied by milk. It was also found that many people thought of milk as a kid’s drink. Additionally, drinks like soda, iced tea, and water were experiencing a boom, with soda consumption heading toward its 1998 peak.

The CMPB gave Manning $25 million to create its very first ad campaign and they teamed up with an agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. This agency had an idea to skip the talk about the benefits of milk, and rather remind consumers that because they loved milk so much, they would panic if they ever ran out.

In 1993, the first “Got Milk” ad was launched, featuring a man with a mouthful of peanut butter trying to answer a radio call-in contest question but being unable to do so because he didn't have any milk to drink. The tagline at the end was "Got Milk?" The campaign was an instant hit in The Golden State and spread rapidly to other parts of the United States. Milk ads were everywhere at the turn of the millennium and soon, the “Got Milk?” catchphrase appeared on cereal boxes and even collaborated with kids' toys, including Barbie and Hot Wheels.

Milk is a good source of calcium, a mineral that is essential for building and maintaining strong bones. However, the idea that drinking milk is the key to strong bones is overly simplistic and may also be a result of advertising efforts. Other factors, such as exercise and a balanced diet that includes other sources of calcium and vitamin D, are also important for bone health.

The 5-second rule applies when you drop food

The "5-second rule" food myth suggests that food dropped on the ground is safe to eat if picked up within 5 seconds. It is unclear how this myth originated but likely as a way to make light of a bad situation. However, scientific evidence shows that bacteria can transfer to food almost immediately upon contact with a contaminated surface, and the 5-second rule is not effective.

Coffee stunts your growth

The idea that coffee can stunt growth is a myth, as there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. This notion may have originated from the mistaken belief that coffee causes osteoporosis, which can sometimes lead to height loss. However, research has shown that coffee does not cause osteoporosis, and osteoporosis does not routinely make people shorter. Additionally, most people have almost reached their full height by the time they start drinking coffee regularly.

Celery is a negative-calorie food

The myth that celery is a negative-calorie food, where the body burns more calories digesting it than it actually contains, likely originated from a marketing tactic to promote "healthy" and "low-calorie" foods. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this idea. Although celery is low in calories and high in fiber, it still contains calories and cannot be considered negative-calorie. The amount of calories burned digesting celery is relatively small compared to the total consumed. Despite this, the myth is still promoted by some diet and weight loss programs.

Turkey makes you sleepy

The myth that turkey makes you sleepy holds that the tryptophan in turkey induces drowsiness after eating. The origins can be traced back to a combination of factors, including the fact that turkey is often eaten during large holiday meals, which may be followed by a period of rest or relaxation. However, the amount of tryptophan in turkey is not significantly higher than other protein sources. Therefore, overeating, alcohol consumption, and relaxation during the holidays are more likely to cause sleepiness.

It takes 7 years to digest gum

This myth likely originated from gum being labeled by manufacturers as indigestible. Though it is untrue, it has been proven effective in deterring children from swallowing gum, which can be a choking hazard. Most ingredients in chewing gum can be easily broken down by your digestive system.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away

The myth that "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" dates back to a Welsh proverb from 1866, which stated that "Eat an apple on going to bed and you'll keep the doctor from earning his bread." The saying first appeared in its current form in 1913. Although eating apples can contribute to good health, they alone cannot prevent illness or replace medical care. Apples are a good source of fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. The myth has been used as a marketing slogan, however, interestingly, recent research does suggest that regular apple consumption may reduce the risk of certain diseases.

Coffee makes you dehydrated

The myth that coffee makes you dehydrated is based on the belief that it is a diuretic. This myth originated due to a study released in 1928 (which studied just 3 people). The study incorrectly stated that coffee’s diuretic properties resulted in dehydration. However, while caffeine does have a mild diuretic effect, the amount of fluid consumed in a cup of coffee is greater than the amount lost through urine. Moderate coffee consumption (up to 4 cups per day) does not have a dehydrating effect, but excessive caffeine intake can be harmful.

’Food myths are part of our upbringing, having been passed down through generations, and continuing to influence many people’s food habits and practices today. While some are harmless and may simply result in adding carrots to every meal, others may have harmful effects if taken too seriously (such as the 5-second rule, which can result in bacteria-laden food). By examining the science and logic behind popular food myths, we’re able to make more informed decisions. It’s also interesting to understand the origin of food myths, as well as the role they play in shaping our food attitudes and beliefs.’Stuart Murless, Co-Founder of boam

About boam

boam is revolutionizing the way technology companies understand, acquire, and serve their restaurant partners - all through advanced AI. The company has built the world’s leading Restaurant Intelligence Platform, scouring millions of disparate data sources across the industry and unlocking new insights and data. The venture was created by an interdisciplinary team of experts at the intersection of machine learning, data aggregation, and food science.