Science Words and Woo-meisters

It started out this morning. I told Suzie that I’m going to do a ‘water fast’ – no food or drinks other than water – just for a couple of days. I suspect I’ll say more about that later, but the point is that she said ‘You should put lemon juice in the water to make your system more alkaline’.

It’s something I’ve heard before, from her and others, and it always seemed backward to me. Lemon juice is acid, containing enough citric acid that its pH can be down near 2 – which is very acid. How would drinking more acid make my system go the other way. Expressed these doubts, and she said that when it’s metabolised it turns alkaline, and bade me ‘do the research!’ (It’s how such things tend to be dealt with at our place – more productive than arguing!)

So I did, and found that there were no papers supporting this claim from reputable scientists in reputable journals, but lots from various ‘woo-meisters’: by which I mean naturopaths, homeopaths, alternative practitioners, self-taught (and unqualified) ‘nutrition gurus’ and so on.

Now, while ‘consider the source’ is one of the key principles of critical web literacy, these folk do sometimes get things right. But when they do, there’s always some evidence of the science that backs up the claims. And for this one, there just isn’t any.

Now, it’s kind of a plausible claim, in a way, in that our bodies are reactive systems, not just beakers. If we wash our skin excessively, for example, it doesn’t end up drier, it ends up oiler, as our bodies try to compensate. So the notion that drinking an acid would cause our bodies to shift to a more alkaline stance in response kind of makes sense… but there’s no evidence to support it.

There’s another issue, though, that I found as I read the various discussions around the issue. The woo-meisters tended to say ‘yes, lemon juice is acid, but when it’s broken down in the body it releases lots of things that are alkaline – sodium, potassium, lithium and so on…’

And a light dawns: because in science, the word ‘alkaline’ has two (related) meanings. It can mean ‘the opposite of acid’ but, precisely because of this ambiguity, the preferred term in chemistry these days for that tends to be ‘base’. We talk about acidic and basic, more than acidic and alkaline. It can also refer to the ‘alkali metals’ – the metals in the first period (vertical column) of the Periodic Table. The elements in the second period are also called the ‘alkali earth metals’.

I suspect that what’s happened here is that people have confused the two meanings of the word – it’s not that acidic lemon juice makes our bodies more basic, it’s that it releases the alkali metals, as nutrients… but there are plenty of other sources for those.

(Just a little side note: ‘lemon juice is powerful medicine’ is probably also linked to the old ‘sympathetic magic’ thing about outer properties mirroring inner powers… garlic similarly gets a lot of props in the woo-meister community. It comes down to ‘it has a powerful taste, so it must be powerful’. That’s not all that’s going on, but I think it contributes.)

‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’… and someone who knows words but is not so clear on what they mean in particular contexts is at risk of making these kinds of mistakes. I suspect most of the woo-meisters are sincerely mistaken, not trying to con people…

But I’ll be drinking my water as pure as I can get it.

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