Guest Guru: Alisa Singer – Fat-free and Other Fairy Tales

Fat-free and Other Fairy Tales

Article and illustrations by humorist, Alisa Singer

Remember the Seinfeld episode when Jerry and Elaine gained all that weight because the owner of the neighborhood ice cream shop flat-out lied about the fat content of his frozen yogurt? That story resonated with me because it was such a classic illustration of how much we rely upon the integrity of strangers in the trivial (and not so trivial) transactions of our daily lives. There are an infinite number of examples of this: The coffee we’re served by the waiter after dinner – is it really decaf? How can we know? The man in the jacket that so obligingly accepts the keys to our car – looked like a valet, right? But can we be sure he wasn’t just a guy that favors plastic windbreakers with logos who happened to be in the right place at the right time and is now driving your car to Mexico? And those 100 calorie fudge cookie snacks, what if …?

And how many times, out of pure laziness, do we trust even when we are in a position to verify. Like the checkout scanner at the grocery store – do you look to see if your items aren’t double-counted and that the prices are properly recorded? Do you reconcile your checkbook against your bank statement every month and count the change you receive every time you buy a newspaper (you do still buy newspapers don’t you?) or, for that matter, the cash you receive from the ATM? (If you are one of those people that actually does all of these things and sometimes discovers major discrepancies, please don’t tell me about them. I’d much rather be blissfully ignorant and go on trusting.)

But when it comes to the internet, a whole different leap of faith is involved. There is, unfortunately, no such thing as a credibility rating for websites. Accordingly, we are advised to be very skeptical and not to believe everything, or possibly anything, we find online and yet… and yet… we want to believe. I would go so far as to say we almost always do believe. As for me, I tend to blindly trust any website that has “.org, .edu, .gov, or national” in its name, and pretty much all the others too.

Perhaps it is that same slothful inclination that keeps us from counting our change that also makes us want to believe, because the internet is such an easy source for almost any kind of information. Recently, after reading about the calamitous impact that methane emitted from cow burps has on the environment, I turned to the internet to research the environmental impact of comparable kinds of emissions emanating from humans. I quickly found the answer in a paper posted by researcher Zach Elgood, impressively titled “The Isotopic Fingerprint of Human-Emitted Methane”. This paper, replete with fancy charts and graphs, reports the results of a study by the author who examined and compared the average methane concentration of human oral and intestinal emissions. The report concluded that only human vegetarians produce a modest amount of methane through colonic gas emissions; those from human omnivores contain only negligible amounts of methane.

And there you have it – yet another example of Google-asked-and-answered research. Did I doubt the reliability of the study? Not a bit of it. Not even when I came to the end and noted the author used Wikipedia as a source and thanked his dad for teaching him about isotopes. And my confidence remained unshaken even after I learned Zach Elgood was a 7th grader from Kitchener, Ontario because, I reasoned, he must be a really smart 7th grader. So if the subject of the impact on the environment from human methane emissions ever comes up I will, no doubt, refer to the conclusions of Zach’s scientific research. After all, I did find it on the internet.

Still, I am puzzled by the following aspect of my own behavior: In the face of my ready willingness to accept at face value the words and deeds of total strangers, why is it that I am highly skeptical of information when the source of it is my very own husband. I refer, of course, to my inability to take on faith his automatically-generated reassuring response to the following philosophical question I pose to him on a daily basis: “Do these pants make my thighs look heavy?”

I wonder what Wikepedia has to say on the subject.

Alisa Singer’s humorous essays have appeared in a variety of print and online newspapers and magazines across the country and in Canada. You can learn more about her work by visiting her website: or contacting her at