The “Obesogenic” Myth: Chemicals Don’t Make You Gain Weight

Environmental Working Group (EWG) activists are constantly butchering the science on a variety of consumer health issues. They are wrong about dangers of pesticides exposure; they are wrong about environmental impacts of meat consumption. They are wrong about contaminants in the drink the water; they are wrong cell phone radiation; they are wrong too antibiotics in the food supply. Search our archives: there are plenty of other examples where they come from.

I bring up EWG’s disappointing track record because the organization has re-entered the obesity debate with a terribly misleading blog post titled Are food and consumer chemicals contributing to our obesity crisis? The answer is no.” There has never been solid evidence behind this hypothesis. It persists because many epidemiologists, activists, politicians and journalists make a living by drawing attention to non-existent problems and solving them. If you think that’s too harsh, read on as we look at EWG’s specific claims in quotes, followed by my comment.

The food industry insists that the obesity crisis in the United States can be attributed to simple math: people are eating too much and exercising too little.

Obesity is more complicated than simple addition and subtraction. As this 2017 article explained, we know “that energy intake and expenditure are interrelated variables that are dynamically influenced by each other and by body weight.” There is also great individual variability regarding long-term weight loss. Everything from insulin sensitivity to adequate support from health care providers plays a role.

Nonetheless, research has repeatedly shown that reducing caloric intake leads to weight loss. People get this result on many different diets, but the common denominator they share is an energy deficit. EWG wants to dismiss calorie restriction as a food industry talking point so they can blame obesity, at least partially, on chemical exposure. They don’t want to capture all the intricacies of human metabolism; they want to substitute a bromide – BPA makes you fat – for the used bromide that overweight people should just eat less and move more.

Can the chemicals in everything from food to cosmetics to drugs to carpets make life easier for our body to gain weight? …Many of these chemicals – called “obesogens” by scientists – alter hormones and metabolism in subtle ways, which ultimately cause us to gain more weight.

EWG linked to a very thorough literature review to support this claim. Interestingly, the authors of this analysis had the integrity to point out important limitations that restrict the conclusions we can draw about the impact of “obesogens”. These include statistical and methodological issues such as:

Misclassification of exposures with high intra-individual variability (eg, for chemicals with short half-lives such as BPA), reverse causation due to pharmacokinetic factors (eg, different routes of exposure affecting the rate excretion) or the inability of the biomarker to represent exposure over the relevant time period.

It’s getting worse. The researchers also struggle to separate the possible effects “of one obesogen exposure from another when the exposures are correlated due to common sources,” the reviewers wrote. Do any, some or all of these chemicals increase the risk of obesity? Do some substances exert a greater obesogenic influence than others?

The problem is amplified by “missing data and exposure below detection level”. Until these and other limitations are resolved, the case for obesogenic chemicals consists of little more than statistical correlations. Our resident toxicologist Susan Goldhaber recently summed up the problem. Using BPA as an example, she explained that

BPA demonstrates the fundamental principle of toxicology: ‘The dose makes the poison. The levels of BPA to which people are exposed are so low that no health effects have been observed; animal studies have only reported adverse health effects at very high levels.

Back to EWG:

The number of overweight and obese people in the United States and around the world continues to rise, despite our cultural obsession with diet and exercise and our countless efforts to promote healthier diets. Since the 1970s, the number of obese Americans has tripled, to 42%.

True, but it does not follow from this observation that chemical exposure is the missing link in the causal chain leading to obesity. Every diet guru with a book to sell has made this logical mistake. Just because a problem persists doesn’t mean EWG’s idiosyncratic solution is the answer to our expanding waistline. To draw that conclusion, we need hard evidence, and the advocates of fattening chemicals haven’t provided it.

Congress should provide more funding to agencies like the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration to examine the health impacts of obesogens and close the loopholes that allow chemical companies, not the FDA, to decide which chemicals in food and cosmetics are safe.

Compare the previous paragraph to what the FDA actually says about cosmetic safety. “The FDA may take regulatory action if we have reliable information that a cosmetic is adulterated or mislabeled,” the agency’s website notes. Regulatory actions include seizing products that violate federal law and prosecuting offending manufacturers or distributors. The FDA can also “perform inspections of cosmetic companies… without notice to ensure compliance with applicable laws… [my emphasis]”

The story is similar for food chemicals. In the case of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), one of EWG’s perennial boogeymen, the FDA unequivocally states that it

carries out a rigorous review of scientific data before they are authorized to be placed on the market. FDA clearance of a food contact substance requires that the available data and information demonstrate that there is a reasonable certainty that it is safe under the intended conditions of use.

Does it look like a helpless bureaucracy held back by the heavy hand of America’s corporate overlords? Barely. From the types of food and tobacco products that Americans can buy to the breeds of animals that farmers can raise for commercial production, the FDA’s regulatory authority is surprisingly broad. EWG tries to bamboozle unsuspecting consumers who don’t have time to study the intricacies of federal chemical regulations.

Ironically enough, it could be argued that the FDA does not have the appropriate regulatory authority, or perhaps the will to exercise it, over certain products, those marketed with the Non-GMO Project label. Foods and consumer goods with that silly butterfly logo include salt, which contains no DNA, as well as a wide variety of products for which there are no GMO alternatives, such as green beans. There are also verified brands of non-GMO cat litter on the market. You’ll never guess what EWG thinks of the non-GMO project:

Buy foods that are “Project Non-GMO Verified” certified. The non-profit organization Non-GMO Project operates a detailed, voluntary certification process so that food producers can test and verify that to the best of their knowledge, they have avoided using genetically modified ingredients in their products.

We will end where we started. EWG again slaughtered the relevant science and told another very misleading story about consumer safety. If there really are “obesogenic” chemicals lurking in our grocery stores, the activist group has failed to demonstrate their existence.

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