But Chipotle's feat is also remarkable because it relies on a misconception we have about foods, and, often nutrition science more generally. We assume that there is always an established, actionable consensus understanding of whether certain foods and ingredients should or shouldn't be eaten. But when it comes to many of the most popular "facts" spread vigorously today, the truth is actually a good deal less clear.
Here are seven of the clearest examples:
1. Genetically modified organisms are not safe to eat, and we should avoid them.
That isn't true, because we don't know that they are unsafe to eat. In fact, the vast majority of scientists (almost 90 percent!) say otherwise. The European Union funded research that concluded the same. So too did the American Medical Association. The real problem, it seems, is that few people understand what GMOs are. All corn, not merely the kind genetically modified by today's narrow definition, is technically genetically modified, too. Still skeptical? Consider that Bill Nye, long one of GMOs biggest critics, recently changed his mind.
2. Aspartame causes cancer, or, at the very least, is definitely bad for us.
We don't know this. In fact, numerous studies show—and a growing scientific consensus believes—that just the opposite is likely true. That doesn't mean you should eat aspartame by the spoonful. Nor, however, does it mean you should fear it in small amounts.
3. We eat too much salt.
It is a statement that is increasingly questionable. We know, pretty decisively, that eating too much salt is a bad thing, especially for people with high blood pressure. But scientists don't actually know—or agree—on what "too much salt" means. As my colleague Peter Whoriskey explained earlier this month, the scientific community is so divided that many believe "a typical healthy person can consume as much as 6,000 milligrams per day." For perspective, the current dietary guidelines say too much is more than 2,300 milligrams per day, and Americans consume about 3,500 milligrams per day.
4. Cholesterol is bad for you.
The evil of cholesterol was a statement long recited by the U.S. government. But that now holds so little truth that the country's top advisory panel, which informs U.S. dietary guidelines, dropped its caution after 40 years of warning Americans about the consequences of eating too many egg yolks.
5. MSG is "a silent killer lurking in your kitchen cabinets."
That is simply not true. What is true is that agencies around the world—from the FDA to the United Nations, even the Australian, British, and Japanese governments—have investigated MSG, and subsequently decided it is safe for humans to eat. As Smithsonian concludes in a long rumination on the controversial additive, "Does MSG deserve its bad rap? For the small section of the population that shows sensitivity to it, probably. But for the rest of America, maybe it’s time to reconsider exactly what we’re so afraid of when it comes to MSG."
6. Gluten is something we should stop eating.
It is something a lot of people believe; roughly a third of Americans, after all, say that they are actively working to eliminate it from their diet. There are people—those who suffer from celiac disease—who need to avoid gluten. There might be others, albeit a small percentage of the population, who are allergic, and would benefit from it too. But by and large, we don't actually know whether we would benefit from avoiding gluten.
As Alan Levinovitz, author of "The Gluten Lie," which explores the origins, appeal and dangers of the gluten-free movement, said, "One of the most important things about science is not to overstate what we know, and when you talk to people who actually research the effects of gluten, they will tell you that at this point in time there is very little that we can be certain about."
7. High fructose corn syrup is worse than sugar.
We don't know that—not with any real, unquestionable, confidence, anyway. It's actually remarkably similar to sugar, chemically. And you should probably just resolve to consume as little of each as possible.
The takeaway isn't that it's a myth that these things are inherently bad for you, but rather that it's a failure on anyone's part to assert that we know for sure that consuming them is deleterious to our health. We don't.