Unscientific Nonsense on ‘Shark Tank’

This article was originally published on RealClearScience.

Shark Tank is one of my favorite television shows. Though its depiction of the angel investor/venture capital world is a bit skewed, it provides an amazing insight into the heart of American capitalism. Indeed, the show easily disproves the myth oft-repeated by certain politicians that “rich people don’t create jobs.” Yes, they do. Start-ups, which directly create jobs, often rely on the beneficence of monumentally rich investors to get their businesses off the ground. Shark Tank, therefore, provides Americans with a basic, 101-level course in entrepreneurialism.

Unfortunately, one of the lessons of entrepreneurialism is that “money matters more than science.” If a buck can be made, few business owners care if their products make a mockery of science. Businesses that peddle unscientific organic food regularly appear on Shark Tank. The owners proudly proclaim that their product has been selling well at Whole Foods — a business that blatantly lies to its customers — after which they often walk away with a sizable investment from the sharks. As a scientist, I am appalled by this.

One recent and particularly egregious example was a business that sold “The Paleo Diet Bar.” According to its website, the bars are a “gluten free, grain free, soy free, dairy free, fiber-rich, and protein-rich, preservative free optimal nutrition bar for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.” Yum. Sounds like cardboard. In addition to selling food that is utterly unappetizing, it is amazing how much unscientific nonsense the owner packed into a single nutrition bar. Let’s examine a few of these claims.

Gluten free. As we have discussed on this website ad nauseum, gluten free is nothing more than an unscientific food fad. Gluten sensitivity isn’t real, and the only people who really need to eat gluten free foods are those who have either allergies or Celiac disease.

Grain free, soy free, dairy free. Why, exactly? Grains, soy, and dairy are all part of a healthy diet.

Preservative free. Personally, I prefer food that doesn’t rot on the shelf. That is why I like preservatives, because they allow us to eat foods that would otherwise spoil. This point seems to have been lost on the owner, who in her pitch to the sharks decried the evils of potassium benzoate (a safe and effective antimicrobial agent) and other similarly difficult-to-pronounce science-y sounding chemicals, which certainly would have made the Food Babe proud. This drives me up the wall, as it is a shameless exploitation of the public’s chemophobia, as well as a mindless deployment of the argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacy.

Hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The paleo diet itself is a load of B.S. Sorry.

Thankfully, this business owner was turned away empty-handed by the sharks, but not because of her butchering of food science. Instead, the sharks weren’t happy with various aspects of her business. In that, at least, I can take a bit of solace.