Appealing to our "Basic" Instincts

Several skeptic north readers and authors have been sharing around a link that came from our friends at the National Post. Indeed the National Post has been friendly to Skeptic North, but as no one is above (respectful) criticism, I feel it necessary to discuss some of the claims and arguments from this offending article.

The article is titled, A fine alkaline: Balance your pH levels, and contains the byline, “Switching to alkaline-producing diet can help prevent degenerative diseases, nutrition expert says”. Having recently given a talk in Toronto impressing the importance that us non-expert skeptics should refrain from arguing the science, and instead limit ourselves to the argument itself, I can still nonetheless relay some of the existing scientific literature before get to the ‘logic’ behind the claims.

In summary:

(The following five points come primarily from Science Based Pharmacy and Quackwatch.  I defer to their expertise).
  1. There is no scientific data suggesting that an alkaline (or basic) pH level is necessarily and inherently good for your health, nor is there any suggestion that an acidic pH is bad.
  2. The pH of the human body is around 7.4. Any major deviation from this (below 7 or above 7.7) means almost certain death.
  3. For a normally healthy person, the pH of all incoming foods is ultimately irrelevant, because the hydrochloric acid in our stomachs (pH of 3) sends broken-down food into our intestines (which absorb the nutrients into our bodies), which immediately saturates and neutralizes the food with digestive liquids and enzymes. In other words, it’s the intestines which send the nutrients to our body, food in our intestines is on par with our body’s pH level–it doesn’t matter what the pH level of the food is going in.
  4. Our lungs and our kidneys provide us with powerful pH imbalance protection.
  5. Measuring the pH of our saliva and urine is pointless unless you’re severely ill.

I don’t want to get too much into the science anymore, largely because I am unqualified, but also because Scott (who is qualified) did a fantastic breakdown of the actual-science surrounding the pseudo-science claims of the supposed benefits of alkalinity (for more analysis, check out Quackwatch’s take on the issue). Instead, I’d like to focus on the logic and arguments surrounding the claims, and hopefully it might help some other people recognize some red-flags when they hear them.

It’s not logical. 

The premise of the original piece is that we can change the pH of our bodies to a more alkaline level by ingesting certain foods, and limiting the intake of others. As already discussed, there is no scientific consensus that an alkaline pH is ideal, so the entire premise is faulty. Therefore, the rest of this critique is entirely academic. But still, let’s continue…

The beginning of the article reads as follows:

While watching a strip of orange litmus paper turn a rich kale green after being dunked in my saliva, Sam Graci admits that his feelings match the strip. 

“I’m a little jealous,” jokes the nutrition expert and author of several healthy-eating books. “I have worked bloody hard for a lot of years to get there. You have a beautifully balanced pH.”

I wonder if it occurred to the original journalist or the nutritionist (Sam Graci) that maybe there is nothing to the theory after all. If Person A has been deeply active in the alkaline diet, and Person B has been eating a regular diet, and their pH levels are shown to be identical, then that is not evidence of efficacy. It suggests, at the very least, that purposely trying to affect one’s pH level by adjusting the diet yields no results that can be determined by a saliva litmus-paper test.

However, we should strive for a balance of 75 per cent alkalizing to 25 per cent acidifying. That is the ratio, researchers say, that was maintained by our early ancestors. 

There are regions of the world known as “Blue Zones“: areas where the civilian population generally turns out higher percentages of long-living people, with fewer health issues. These areas include Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Loma Linda (California), Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), and Ikaria (Greece). Researchers have been studying these areas for a while trying to figure out the secrets to their respective health records, and from what I could find, there are two things I am certain of: 1) Contrary to what Graci claims, there is a lot more than “one commonality”, and 2) a discussion of pH level is conspicuously absent. A team from National Geographic went to Okinawa, Sardinia and Loma Linda to try and gleam what commonalities there were and they centered around the following criteria: heavy emphasis on family, no smoking, plant-based diet, constant moderate physical activity, high level of social engagement, and eating of legumes. Indeed, the Sardinians seem to enjoy their acidic wine! In otherwords, it’s awfully reductionist to assume that there is only one commonality between these successful people, awfully arrogant to assume that you know what that one thing is, and awfully forward to make your living selling books and products that promote this “one” thing.

Graci explains that our bones contain a lot of minerals, which are alkalizing. Scientists have shown that when the arterial blood gets a little acidic, it leaches minerals from the bones to restore its balance, leaving our bones depleted and brittle. 

“Our bones are now used as a reservoir of minerals that go to our kidneys to make antacid sponges to neutralize all the acid in the body,” says Graci.

I will again refer you to Scott’s piece, which addressed this issue much better than I could. Science aside, this is yet another false premise. The non-skeptic who is unfamiliar with the pantheon of logical fallacies may also know this as “making stuff up and running with it”.

As we wander through the grocery aisles, Graci grabs a bag of lemons and offers a tip: An easy way to build the alkalinity in your body, is adding lemon to the water you drink. It’s simple and effective, he says. 

It seems counter-intuitive to eat citrus fruits and tomatoes, both of which are very acidic in the mouth, to boost the alkaline levels in the cells, but Graci explains that when they are broken down in the stomach, the acids are converted to alkalines.

This is getting exhausting. This has now become not only a textbook example of bad science and logical fallacies, but also lazy journalism. It took me 5 minutes of reading to learn that after you eat a food, your body neutralizes the acids and alkalies: it doesn’t turn an acid into an alkaline. If it did, your stomach would be a lot more explodey than it otherwise would be.

Pictured: The “before” phase of what would happen if you dramatically changed your pH level (….probably…you don’t want me to show you the “after”)

The alkalizing foods we should eat to maintain the proper pH balance are the same foods we have been told to eat. These include brightly coloured veggies and fruits, especially those that maintain the colour throughout.

And now I lay thee claim to sleep

I’ve encountered the alkaline-is-awesome mode of thinking before. It always strikes me as how blatantly obvious it is that those who advocate the baseless claim that an alkaline pH balance is somehow ideal, also stand to directly benefit financially from having people believe in it. With the Kangen Water claim, it was “Alkaline water is best, so buy a $4000 alkaline water-maker….which we sell”. With Graci, it seems to be “An alkaline body is best, so buy a wad of books (which I write) on how to do it, and buy these supplements (which I designed and sell)”.

You’ve heard the claim before a million times: “Big Pharma backs the government. And universities. And the health agencies. …all over the world, so OF COURSE they’re going to push their drugs and pills and poison!” Yet for all this screaming, the up-front agenda always seems so maddeningly obvious to me when Person A (in this case, Graci himself) says, “You need to buy Product X or you’ll die sooner and in pain. I happen sell Product X! And Product Y! Lucky you! $39.95 please. What is it? Oh, it’s not just food, it’s SUPERFOOD!” The author interviewing Graci could have taken 10 minutes to look him up and point out that maybe, just maybe, Graci is promoting his finances as much as his food (food, which, he also sells).

I bet by now, you are really wondering if your pH reading is as good as mine. The simplest way to find out is to buy a pH kit at a health-food store or pharmacy for about $10. Then, spit your way to a better diet. 

Spit indeed.

4 Responses to “Appealing to our "Basic" Instincts”

  1. Dr. Bluize says:

    I firmly believe in critical thinking and healthy academic debates. I’m not sure if either you or Sam Graci completely understand that the only time you can make causal statements is if you have done a true experiment with random assignment. Take a group of people with lower pH suffering from the same ailment, randomly assign them to one group which works on improving alkaline balance and another wait list control. Without such an experiment you can make all the correlations you want, but correlations have never and will never equal causation. And, just to be clear, Sam Graci doesn’t accept any payment from his books and never has. He gives it all to environmental causes across Canada. So just as a good researcher needs to know the facts, so does a good journalist. You’ve lost your credibility with me. I’ll go with Sam.

    • Dr. Carl says:

      I firmly am aware all doctors are usually registered with a college or body that keeps a roster. I am unaware of what roster you are on, since you’re either not registered with a college or are not an MD, therefore discussing anything regarding medicine you would be ill-advised to use that credential without indicating what your doctorate is in.

      Sam lives in a cottage on Saltspring Island, which costs money – no matter if his extra income is given away. People don’t spend time on studies like the one you mention because we have a fair understanding of the body and its systems. Few researchers want to spend time, “proving Sam Graci wrong.”

      Is Sam Graci on welfare? How does he afford his home? Please don’t pander statements about how he has no income – it’s really pretty transparent. He can donate 80% of his income, but he still needs to buy all those fresh veggies and pay off his lenders – It’s not monopoly money.

      Supposedly this journalist is not credible, but Sam Graci is when he has never done the study himself and he rails on the current food system all the time?

      I’ll go with my own views, which is also what the author is advocating – not to follow BIG PHARMA or Sam Graci.

      Eating a healthy diet that is higher in plant-based foods with a moderate amount of variety and supplementation is a proven way to eat… while minimizing highly processed foods.

      You shouldn’t need to buy a book or Greens+ to know that, its public knowledge and everywhere.

    • Steve Thoms says:

      I forgot this comment was here, from over a year ago! Apologies!

      You said, “…the only time you can make causal statements is if you have done a true experiment with random assignment.”

      Or, look at the scientific literature. One does not need to perform an experiment every time a statement is made, nor to reject a claim, especially one as woefully implausible as what Graci proposes.

      Also, I’m not the one making causal statements. Graci is, and they’re at odds with existing scientific literature.

      You also said,
      “Take a group of people with lower pH suffering from the same ailment, randomly assign them to one group which works on improving alkaline balance and another wait list control”

      No doubt Sam Graci can produce these studies? Because I can’t find them.

      And you go on to say,
      “Sam Graci doesn’t accept any payment from his books and never has. He gives it all to environmental causes across Canada. So just as a good researcher needs to know the facts, so does a good journalist.”

      So this changes anything he said? This changes anything I wrote? Even *if* Graci did donate all his proceeds (A claim I cannot confirm, by the way, so it would be helpful if you could provide a link that might help prove your claim), he’s still marketing a bogus idea written in bogus books, bolstered by bogus supplements.

      So you can prattle on about how poor a journalist I am, or you could back up your claims like I did.

  2. Orlanda furiosa says:

    It is extremely disconcerting for Dr. oz to sell diet and other pills from the internet when he is no more than a snake oil salesman.
    Of course none of them work.
    He should be off the air if he does not tell everyone that one of his kick backs could work one time for one person, usually a woman.

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  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.