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I realize a couple of folks have discussed this. However, that discussion does not resolve the issue for me. Here's why:

A question was recently asked about nixtmalization and nutrition. It was treading on nutritional advice (or "general health and diet"), which is clearly off topic and was closed. I edited the question, and voted to re-open, others agreed with the edit and reopening. So the question returned to active status.

In answering the question, one must specify that the process itself creates a product that the human body can take advantage of; that it makes corn nutritional. Furthermore, that it allows humans to access very specific nutrients.

This, of course is not conjecture. It is not general health advice. It is not about recommending or suggesting a particular diet. It is the science of nixtamalization.

That part was edited out of my answer on the basis that nutrition or nutrients are off topic and cannot be mentioned.

Nowhere on this page does our site specify this. The closest criteria is that "general health and diet issues" are off topic. I have no problem with that, but that is certainly NOT what this answer was about.

This appears to be an overly broad interpretation of the off topic criteria, especially if this site is about answerable questions, accuracy, and, frequently, scientifically based knowledge.

So, can someone point me to the policy that states "the nutritional part" (identifying the nutrients that nixtamalization makes available to the human body) of my answer is off topic...and also that "listing elements which are accessible to the human body is also off topic?" ...I can't seem to locate that anywhere.

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As background, generally the way I've seen the logic about edits removing off-topic content is that it's off-topic to ask for answers about nutrition, and thus answers (or portions of answers) about nutrition are not answering the question, and removing it can't turn it into a worse answer. Of course normally off-topic tangents aren't particularly harmful, but with nutrition it's just so incredibly common for it to lead to misinformation and unproductive debates.

With that said, it seems fairly clear that historical questions like this one may indeed have nutritional answers - not necessarily in the sense of "it makes the food more healthy/nutritious!" but "people believe that it makes the food more healthy" or even "it has X effect on the nutrients in the food". That may well be one of the reasons why something is done, and answers won't be complete without mentioning it.

I would tend to then say that this case (and probably others like it) is one where we shouldn't necessarily just remove everything that mentions nutrition, especially if it's presented in a more factual manner, rather than overbroad/unverifiable "it makes it healthier" claims.

Given this, I think I'd generally be fine with things like your original answer, especially if refined/clarified to avoid the sort of overbroad claims rumtscho is concerned with. I don't think we can reasonably make/discuss those big claims, but it doesn't seem to be particularly in dispute that nixtamalization helps prevent deficiency-related diseases, or that that's one of the historical reasons for the practice.

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  • hi Cascabel, thank you for sharing this view. What would your position be on a historical question such as "How did Dr. Hay's diet prevent diabetes"? Is it also acceptable under your interpretation? If not, how we draw the line between acceptable and inacceptable quesitons? – rumtscho Aug 12 '20 at 13:06
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    I think the primary intent of the question carries a lot of weight, as does the scope of health/nutrition information required for an answer, and the scale of controversy. Historical questions like this aren't primarily about nutrition, they don't require in-depth information that gets down into the really bad minefields, and there's really no controversy about the existence of literal deficiency diseases. (Your example fails on all three of those counts.) It's also totally feasible for us to apply case by case judgement here; we don't need perfect rules that make everything trivial. – Cascabel Aug 12 '20 at 15:53
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The on-topic list is very short by necessity. You will find more pertinent information on the [tag-info of nutrient composition][1], specifically listing under not permitted questions:

Whether a given food is healthy or not, or healthy in comparison to another food

The best way to understand it though is not by looking up the rules, but understanding the logic behind the line we draw. And it is:

Never write answers which require you to interpret the word "healthy" or "nutritious" in some way, especially by implying that eating a specific food (or a specific nutrient) is better than not eating it.

Let's look at the question which sparked it all: nixtamalization. Your answer relies on the statements (I will pick a single compound to make it easier):

  1. Niacin in corn [is] not digestible by humans (directly stated in your answer)
  2. Niacin is desirable in a healthy/nutritious diet
  3. The bioavailability of niacin matters, and is higher for nixtamalized corn than for untreated corn
  4. Nixtamalized corn is more nutritious than non-nixtamalized corn.

Here, you directly state 1), and to me is pretty clear that you are concluding 4). This means that you are also implying that 2) and 3) are true - if you thought that they are false, it would be illogical to conclude 4). So, your answer also implies 2) and 3).

And here is where the problem lies, especially in 2). It is maybe a bit difficult to wrap your head around it, because it is quite uncontroversial when it is said about niacin. But imagine a scenario in which somebody creates a new diet fad about barricidine, finds out that corn is full of barricidine and nixtamalization destroys it, and writes an answer saying that non-nixtamalized corn is much more nutritious because it is a great barricidine source, which is much rarer than a good niacin source. What happens in this example? First, we have given the arena to a quack, and second, we are on a good way to a flame war.

And what is the difference between "X is nutritious because it contains niacin" and "X is nutritious because it contains barricidine", if our quack also publishes a couple of studies? Only that the science behind one of them is older and more widespread. Now it would be great if every scientific statement in the field of nutrition was easy to label either as "confirmed by facts" or as "utter nonsense". But the problem is that for almost every statement in nutrition, that's impossible.

The sad state of affairs is that every statement such as "eating X is healthy" (X here can be a food, or a compound) is opinion-based. Even when you are convinced that there is solid science behind it, when you dig a bit, you find that it is not as clear-cut as you'd wish. So nutrition-related statements, be they directly stated or implied, are not allowed, for pretty much the same reasons which cover all other opinion-based questions.

You may wish that we could draw the line somehow such that correct statements are still allowed while incorrect ones are disallowed - but that would require moderation based on the presumed truth content of answers, and this is against the principles of Stack Exchange (and these are very good principles, I must add! - imagine if I was required to delete each of your answers which I find wrong).

This also explains the one exception we make with the tag whose existence is meant as a concession to the provable part of the discipline, but actually tends to confuse people. Imagine question A, "is nixtamalized corn more nutritious as nonnixtamalized", and question B, "is there more niacin in nixtamalized corn than in nonnixtamalized". Question A is off topic because it requires the answerer to pick a nutritional theory ("it is desirable to eat niacin") and then answer. Question B is on topic because the OP has already done the subjective work of picking their own nutritional theory and asks for the result of a relatively unambiguous measurement.

By the way, we also don't allow questions and answers about bioavailability (such as statement 3 from the list above). In principle, it can be measured for certain compounds under certain circumstances - but I have never seen answerers on the site who understand the complexity of the subject (myself included). Most people seem to actually think that bioavailability is the same thing as bioefficacy. It is not, and while users probably want to know about bioefficacy, this is typically not answerable, and letting them ask and answer about bioavailability instead seems like a good way to spread disinformation. So, we simply don't add bioavailability to the tiny area of allowed-by-exception questions on nutrients.

I hope this cleared up better how to know where the line is. If it still seems like too much, you can try going by the rule of thumb:

Questions on nutrition are forbidden. The exception that is allowed (under the nutrient-composition tag) requires that 1) the OP names a compound in the question, and 2) the question is about the measurable quantity of that compound in the food, before it has been eaten.

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  • Bottom line: It's not nutritional advice I am providing. It is an explanation of the science and the history of the process. That's my problem with the "policy" and your reasoning. But it's a community, right? So, I'll keep answering questions the best I can...and raising questions when I disagree. In this case, I think we can do better than an outright ban on anything contains the words "nutrition" or "nutrients." I think moderation can easily handle the distinction between health advice (which I believe is the intent of the policy) and scientific and historical fact. – moscafj Aug 10 '20 at 15:30
  • I agree that it is science - it is just connected to a scientific discipline which is off topic. What would be better than the outright ban on nutrition? Where would you put the line? How would you deal with all the cases of people treating an opinion-based statement as if it were absolute undeniable truth? These are not rhetorical questions, if we can carve out a better, less confusing policy that is still aligned with the SE model, that would be great, and hearing your suggestions would be informative. Even if you don't have a suggestion, thank you for raising the question. – rumtscho Aug 10 '20 at 15:36
  • As I stated, I believe the policy intent is to avoid nutritional advice...is this healthy? What is more healthy? ...etc. In the case here, looking at your bullet points above: 1 -Fact, for untreated corn (basic science). 2 - Fact, Niacin is necessary for human health. 3 - Fact, that is why nixtimal is historically significant. 4 - See point 3. We clearly disagree on the intent of the policy. My preference is to allow moderation to make a distinction between health advice and science that helps to explain an important culinary process. – moscafj Aug 10 '20 at 15:39
  • @moscafj science is full of evidence for true statements (facts, as you call them) and evidence for untrue statements (let's call them lies). The purpose of the policy is that moderators and voters should not be required to distinguish between facts and lies related to nutrition - so, "eating niacin is necessary for human health" and "eating enriched uranium is neccessary for human health" have to be both treated equally, despite one being a fact and the other a lie. Under that constraint, we know no better way of preventing the lies than preventing the few facts together with them. – rumtscho Aug 10 '20 at 16:10
  • I disagree with your reasoning. There is a health condition that arises from a lack of niacin, for example. It is called pellagra, and without nixtamalization would have been the demise of corn-centric cultures. No one, in the history of the world, has suggested that "eating enriched uranium is necessary for human health." It's pretty easy to distinguish, especially with the advantage of a system that is supposed to allow for community moderation. Clearly we are going to have to agree to disagree. You keep referring to "we", but I am only seeing your perspective on this. – moscafj Aug 10 '20 at 16:17
  • ...I'll look forward to hearing other perspectives. Moderation and editing constantly keep fact and lies in balance on this site. That is not a good enough reason in my opinion. – moscafj Aug 10 '20 at 16:17
  • @moscafj independently of the policy on health and nutrition, moderation and editing is explicitly forbidden from dealing with the lie/fact distinction. Imagine an answer which states that the sky is orange - neither a moderator nor a user (except the answerer) is allowed to edit it to say that the sky is blue, or to delete it because of its being a lie. And that's standard policy for the whole network, see meta.stackexchange.com/a/111533/149055 and most questions on Meta.SE marked with wrong-answers. – rumtscho Aug 10 '20 at 16:31
  • I think you can find plenty of evidence of comments making corrections to reasoning, correcting, and adding context, this generally allows the community to arrive at the best answer for a question. But again, I see our interpretations differ and, while not many folks participate in meta, I do look forward to hearing other perspectives. – moscafj Aug 10 '20 at 16:42
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    I don't want to wade too much into particulars here, and have written my own answer. I think the broad point I'd make, though, is that if we strictly adhere to rules that make it impossible to mention nutrition in a historical question, then we're ultimately prioritizing those rules over our ability to answer questions that we claim are within our scope - and I don't think that's a good tradeoff to make. – Cascabel Aug 10 '20 at 18:56

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