The health benefits of chicharon
Author’s note: Using the example of the Filipinos’ favorite snack, I discuss how factual information can be assembled to manufacture a lie. (Warning: Read the entire article)
Chicharon – deep-fried pork rind – is one of the favorite snacks of Filipinos. It can be traced to Spain (the only difference in the name is the double ‘r’ in the Spanish chicharron), and variations of the snack are found all over Latin America – from Panama to Peru.
Chicharon is usually seen as an unhealthy food because of its high fat content. But actually, recent studies have shown that sugar – not fat – is the major culprit of many of our health problems. On this register, cholesterol has high marks as it is actually a zero carbohydrate food.
Also, if you look at the kind of fat that’s in chicharon, you will find that a good proportion is actually mono-unsaturated – the same, healthy kind of fat found in olive oil, avocados, and macadamias. Some kinds of chicharon have as high as 40% of this “heart-healthy” fat.
Moreover, each 0.5 oz serving of chicharon has 8-9g of protein, making it a protein-rich food, comparable to the protein content of Greek yoghurt. Compared to the same amount of your average potato chips, chicharon has 9 times the protein, less fat, and fewer – if any – artificial ingredients!
Chicharon in the Philippines is usually consumed with vinegar, and this condiment also has health benefits, being a fat- and carbohydrate-free liquid. The coconut palm vinegar commonly used in the Philippines is mineral-rich, having phosphorus, potassium, iron, magnesium, sulfur, boron, zinc, manganese and copper, and may have benefits that include diabetes control.
By now, you may be feeling incredulous about all that I’ve written. As I don’t want this piece to be mistaken for one of those satirical articles that people take seriously, I will have to stop now and be clear that chicharon, despite all that I’ve written, is unhealthy and must be taken in small amounts – if at all. But here’s the rub: every sentence in the above paragraphs is factual.
But it goes to show how, in our world of information overload, we can be misled not by lies, but by the truth. It illustrates how everything and anything can be made to look healthy. How do we lie using truth?
First by omitting certain details. In my brief spiel about chicharon, by not mentioning its very high sodium (salt) content, I ignored the elephant in the room. High salt intake raises blood pressure, which in turn can to heart problems. Fats, moreover, still translate to a high amount of calories (one small pack has more calories than a cup of rice) – which I also conveniently ignored. Finally, most chicharon are further processed and include MSG, among other unhealthy ingredients.
This is what many health articles and food labels do. They highlight the good (“Fortified with Vitamins A, B, and C”) but leave out the bad (“High in sodium, high in MSG, contains artificial ingredients”).
Second, there is the trumpeting of negatives as if they were relevant. In my writeup, I emphasized that chicharon has no carbohydrates, even though meats and meat products like lechon and pork chop don’t have carbohydrates to begin with. Many foods are naturally “gluten-free”, but mentioning it somehow boosts their image as healthy products. In like manner, some products are glorified as “fat-free” even though they are high in sugar, or “sugar-free” when they are dangerously high in fat.
Third, there is selective comparison. In my above spiel, I compared chicharon to potato chips – which is like comparing the venom of a tarantula to the venom of a cobra. In supermarkets you will see artificially-sweetened “orange juice drinks” being labelled as having “more Vitamin C than 8 oranges”, omitting the fact that there is much more to oranges than Vitamin C – there’s a bunch of phytonutrients and fiber – and much less simple sugars.
I could have spiced my chicharon story further by adding some jargon to boost its “credibility”. This is because, as food manufacturers know too well, we are enchanted by antioxidants and acids, L-carnitine, theanine, and anything else that sounds scientific. And if that weren’t enough, I could cite actual scientific research, but exaggerate the implications of its findings. Alas, this is being done all the time: plant extracts showing some “cytotoxic activity” in a lab is being taken as proof that they’re cures for cancer; a trial involving mice is marketed as evidence for a product’s efficacy for humans.
As a medical doctor, I welcome the availability of health information available online – and admire the efforts of physicians like Dr Willie Ong who are actively using cyberspace to reach and educate the public (my own efforts can be found in the Tagalog-language website, Kalusugan.PH).
But I also worry that many people are unequipped to sort between medical fiction and fact. Thus we end up finding (and sharing) articles that tell us what we already want to hear: soymilk fans will share articles that enumerate its health benefits, while anti-soymilk advocates will also share equally-convincing articles that document its alleged harmful effects.
To be honest, we medical professionals are sometimes confused too – and I oftentimes have to tell my patients that I would need to study the topic first before making any informed opinion.
I guess the minimum I want to say is: don’t believe everything you read on the internet, no matter how well-written or scientific-sounding. Do fact-checks, and scout for second opinions. Consult your doctor – make the most of medical consults by asking questions! Be skeptical of outlandish claims, and most importantly, bear in mind that no single food can boost your health: you must consider your entire diet and lifestyle.
Of late, much has been said about fake news, and we should broaden this conversation and discuss what else is untrue on the internet, and where else are we affected by it in our everyday lives. The health benefits of chicharon and many other food products and practices may be thrown into doubt, but with thoughtful deliberation and critical thinking, the benefits of online health information may yet be realized. – Rappler.com
Gideon Lasco is a physician, medical anthropologist, and commentator on culture and current events. His essays have been published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Singapore Straits Times, Korea Herald, China Post, and the Jakarta Post.