Food Fiction

A quick look at the myths behind some of our most popular meals.

"An apple a day keeps the doctor away." We're not sure who came up with that catchy rhyme, popular since the 1800s, but if it were true, we would have no need of doctors, medicine, or hospitals. We'd just need lots and lots of apples. No, it's just one of many bits of food fiction that have been handed down over the years -- some of them based on at least a grain of truth, others without any basis at all in reality. Here are just a few others:

• Carrots improve your eyesight.

It's true that carrots contain a substance called beta-carotene, which -- if taken in large amounts, far more than carrots contain by themselves -- can reduce an eye condition called macular degeneration. But carrots by themselves contain no miracle ingredients that will enable anyone to stop wearing eyeglasses. That myth is actually based on propaganda from World War II, when the British bombers developed a new form of radar that increased the accuracy of their bombing runs. They didn't want the Germans to know about their new invention, so they "leaked" stories about their pilots gaining better night vision by eating carrots. The enemy bought it, and so did the general public.

• Citrus fruits are especially good for you.

Oranges, tangerines, pineapples, and more are packed with fiber and Vitamin C, so at first glance this would seem to be true. But for large numbers of people, all those fruits can be a real headache -- literally. According to the National Headache Foundation, citrus fruit is a recognized trigger for migraines. Migraine patients are usually advised to avoid these foods -- and a few others, especially bananas and kiwi -- at all costs. And be especially wary about mixing grapefruit and pills; its acid contains chemicals that drastically affect many prescription medications.

• Turkey makes you sleepy because it's just packed with a chemical that is a powerful sedative.

That chemical is tryptophan, and it is indeed found in turkey meat. But it is also in milk, beans, and most cuts of beef, too. According to the myth-debunking website, "If tryptophan were truly the sandman's henchman, we'd be falling asleep at the wheel on our way home from KFC or McDonald's." An adult would require as much as 3,000 mgs of tryptophan to feel its sedative effects. A normal portion of turkey contains less than 350 mgs. So what makes people so drowsy after a big Thanksgiving dinner isn't the turkey, it's just the sheer amount of food they cram under their belts.

• Jell-O is the perfect dessert for vegetarians.

Sure, if they don't mind eating animal products. Yes, that innocent box of powdered dessert mix contains -- as the name suggests -- gelatin. And where does gelatin come from? It's the byproduct that comes from boiling away the bones, skins, and hides of cows and pigs. This process releases the protein-rich collagen, which is then dried and ground into a powder. So if you're a strict vegan and want to avoid all animal products, better stay away from Jell-O.

• Oysters make you feel, uh, romantic.

There is no scientific basis for this claim. Some have said it's because of their high zinc content, but nobody has ever shown that eating zinc increases sexual desire -- or anything else, for that matter. And the alleged aphrodisiac powers of oysters apparently affect only women. According to, one "joking" theory states, "'If you can get a woman to eat a raw oyster, you can get her to do anything,' -- referring to their visual nature, which is unappealing."

• Green M&Ms have the same effect (and are easier to eat, too).

The Mars Company, makers of M&Ms since 1941, knows all the odd rumors associated with these melt-in-your-mouth morsels: orange ones are good luck; brown ones are bad luck, etc. But even they can't say why the green ones -- which contain the same ingredients as all the other colors -- are considered an aphrodisiac. At any rate, that didn't stop Mars from playing up that notion, with an advertising campaign in the 1990s that asked, "Is it true what they say about green ones?" The answer is: NO.

Oh, and about those apples? Eating one a day won't do you a bit of harm. Just wash them off first, and watch out for worms. 

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