Where this starts: the CNN website today has a link to a story with the headline: “Boost your flu-fighting power.” That link takes you to an article by Ashley Johnson on MyRecipes.com with the subtitle, “Go to battle against colds and the flu by arming yourself with a supply of immune-boosting foods.” Johnson writes: “Even if you missed this year's flu shot, it's still possible to fight off the seasonal cold and flu viruses with a rainbow of tasty dishes.” Sounds yummy!
The article then lists the top 10 “most powerful immune-boosting foods.” The only problem is, none of these foods has been shown to “boost” the immune system at all. In fact, the whole notion of “immune-boosting” is seriously flawed: your immune system isn’t a muscle that you can strengthen by exercise or diet. The only remotely plausible step you can take to strengthen immunity is to get vaccinated. CNN should be ashamed of including this nonsense under their “Health” category.
But I digress. What does MyRecipes.com recommend? Well, they have some truly newsworthy ideas, beginning with #1: drink orange juice! While there’s no scientific evidence whatsoever that this will fight off the flu, the article breezily dismisses that concern with this: “While there's no real proof that loading up on the stuff will help once you've been bitten by the bug, there is power in keeping your immune system in top shape.” Huh? Sorry, OJ, there’s no evidence for this either. See my comment above: the immune system isn’t a muscle. Although orange juice is certainly good for you as part of a balanced diet, and it’s tasty.
I won’t go through the whole list, but here are a few more real howlers. Number 5 is oysters, which don’t have any particular health benefits. Not to be bothered by the lack of evidence, Johnson writes:
“Long hailed as an aphrodisiac ... oysters also offer a hearty punch of calcium, niacin, and iron. But the reason these slippery suckers have gotten the good date-night PR is their powerful zinc levels. Zinc, said to help fight off colds by boosting the production of immunity-boosting white blood cells, also controls progesterone levels, which can alter the libido.”Look at how that first sentence is written: Johnson repeats the common but utterly unfounded claim that oysters are an aphrodisiac, and says they “also” offer other benefits – with that one word, “also,” she makes it clear she agrees with the aphrodisiac claim. What about zinc? Well, there was some weak evidence that zinc might help reduce the severity of colds, but the evidence has not held up to further, more careful scrutiny. So if you like oysters, go ahead and eat them, but don’t expect any health benefits. As for me, I’d rather leave the slimy suckers on the bottom of the bay where they belong.
Of course chicken soup is on the list, at number 10: “This magical elixir has long held the throne for cold and flu fighting foods. Whether it's the chicken (packed with zinc), the hot temperature (to loosen congestion), or the veggies (loaded with vitamins) that should get the credit, no one's sure.” That’s right, no one’s sure because there's no scientific evidence at all that chicken soup fights colds or flu. But hey, a bowl of hot soup always feels good when you’re miserable, so there’s no harm in eating it. At least it tastes better than oysters.
Every one of Johnson’s top 10 items is linked to a recipe, which at MyRecipes.com is what they’re pushing, of course. I have no objection to that – who doesn’t like good food? But I do object to her bogus health claims (and by the way, Johnson appears to have no medical or scientific training – she’s a food writer, and not even a good one). “Instead of a pill,” she argues, “a balanced diet of immune-boosters and bacteria balancers just might help you ride out the final months of winter's chill.” Bacteria balancers? What the ...? This kind of fluff is so stupid that I almost feel guilty ridiculing it. Almost, but not quite.