Magical Thinking for Marketing Pecans

The headlines are great. “Pecans: the surprising superfood for obesity prevention and wellness” says one. “Pecans pack a punch in fighting obesity, diabetes and inflammation” according to another. All this magical thinking about pecans comes from a study of mice on a high-fat diet.

What does this mean for humans? Mainly it means that the Texas Pecan Board can sell us more pecans. They’re good for us!

Obesity Prevention?

These researchers fed mice a controlled high-fat diet. They randomized the mice into three different groups. One group received only the control diet. Another had that diet with the addition of whole pecans. The third group received an extract of polyphenols from pecans in their diet. Over 18 weeks, the scientists studied the effect on markers of metabolic function. They concluded:

“The present study demonstrates that whole pecans or a pecan polyphenol extract prevented obesity, liver steatosis, and diabetes by reducing dysbiosis, inflammation, and increasing mitochondrial content and energy expenditure.”

Have they really demonstrated that pecans can prevent obesity, fatty liver, and diabetes? Not really. They’ve merely demonstrated that under some very specific laboratory conditions eating pecans can have metabolic effects on mice.

Of course, this is true for anything that either mice or humans eat.

The Folly of Health Claims for Food

Magical thinking about the health effects of food is a wonder to behold. The FDA has been working for years now on defining the word healthy for food labels. So far, all it has yielded is controversy. And we’re here to tell you that’s all it will ever yield.

Are pecans healthy? Are they still healthy when you bake them into a wonderful pecan pie with a marvelous buttery crust and plenty of corn syrup to make it sweet and delicious? In the end, the answer is maybe or maybe not. It all depends upon the context of everything else that a person is eating.

But the experience of having that pie in the company of loved ones can be quite magical. Magical health benefits? Probably not.

Click here for the study of pecans for mice and here for the press release that started the ball rolling with magical thinking for marketing pecans.

Pecans, photograph by David R. Tribble, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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August 7, 2023