I was assigned to write an article about the class of polysaccharides known as beta-glucans. Here’s why I couldn’t.


The Beta-glucans that may be found in your multivitamins are most often derived from baker’s yeast.

My column for this month was supposed to be on a very interesting class of carbohydrates called beta-glucans. According to the Wikipedia page, “Beta-glucans comprise a group of beta-D-glucose polysaccharides naturally occurring in the cell walls of cereals, yeast, bacteria, and fungi, with significantly differing physicochemical properties dependent on source.” It goes on to say, “The positive health effects of beta-glucan have been demonstrated through extensive research, but differ by type: yeast and medicinal mushroom derived betaglucans are notable for their ability to modulate the immune system, while cereal beta-glucan is known for cholesterol-lowering, glucose modulation, and cosmetic applications.” That’s some heavy lifting right there, but it echoes what the research seems to show. Beta-glucans are really interesting compounds that seem to have some pretty amazing properties. But this is just Wikipedia: an amazing resource but not authoritative medical literature.

Adding beta-glucans was one of the key changes that First Endurance, a long-time sponsor of mine, made when upgrading their Multi-V to Multi-V PRO, which I’ve taken for the past year and a half. In that year and a half, I’ve been sick less often in spite of having three kids who collect germs every day at pre-school, at the park and everywhere else. Was that the beta-glucans? It seems like it might have been. But it also could have been luck, or maybe it’s actually because I have three small kids. There’s some evidence that parents are actually less likely to catch colds.

There’s a lot of research on these compounds, some of which seems pretty good, some of which seems a bit shaky. I had some good sources, but as I started to write, I realized they all sat on the same side of the fence. I had no skeptics. I had no neutral parties. And I simply don’t know enough to serve as the neutral party or skeptic in this case. In high school, I took pretty much every advanced placement science course except biology. I was a mechanical and aerospace engineer in college, so I didn’t add much to my understanding of biology except through my extracurricular activities, where I learned important though hardly revolutionary ideas like, “Excessive consumption of alcohol causes nausea in young adult humans” and “Improper hygiene among college-aged males leads to the spread of the Epstein-Barr virus,” as well as some other things not fit to print.

I feel fairly comfortable weighing in the subject of training. I’ve managed to put together a reasonable understanding of human physiology thanks to great coaching and mentorship, a reasonable understanding of the scientific method, and a lot of trial and a lot of error. I like to think I know the difference between correlation and causation, and I rely on a good network of people to smack me in the head if I start to drift. And research on training tends to be less biased simply because there isn’t a saleable product. Whether or not something is effective doesn’t really have profound implications on anyone’s profits. In the pharmaceutical industry, however, the unfortunate impact of motive is a huge problem, and without more expertise, I just didn’t feel comfortable writing the article. I got about 1,000 words in and decided, “I cannot write this with a clear conscience.”

I have no problem writing a column based on anecdotes or personal experience. My Kona column every year is almost entirely that, and yet it is one of the ones I get the best feedback on. But the plural of anecdote is not data, and when I start to cross the line into a subject where I don’t have the depth of knowledge to calibrate my BS meter, I get nervous.

I got about 1,000 words in and decided, “I cannot write this with a clear conscience.”

Ultimately, I felt like a parrot repeating talking points I didn’t fully understand. That’s not to say those talking points are wrong, by any means. If anyone wants to do research for themselves, the teams at Biothera, who makes Wellmune, which is the beta-glucan blend in Multi-V PRO, and Sound Probiotics, who make a synbiotic formula, have a ton of research on their sites. And I didn’t find much, if anything, that contradicted their claims. I’m grateful to them for spending a lot of time answering my questions, but I don’t know how good my questions were, or how well I really understood the answers.

I’ve written this column for almost six years (wow) with virtually unlimited latitude in terms of content thanks to an awesome editorial staff. I’ve covered a broad range of topics, and I’ve always felt like whatever claims I made, I could back them up with confidence based on what I knew or at least knew at the time. I’ve tried to include the input of skeptics, like when my sister, an MD-PhD ophthalmologist, contradicted my strong belief that tinted lenses make a difference with her statement, “The research just doesn’t support it.”

On other topics, like what elastic shoelaces are best, I’ve been careful to acknowledge that just because I like something best doesn’t mean it is the best. And in my favorite type of column, I get to help people understand something complex like aerodynamics by showing the ways in which it actually is complex but also the ways in which it is simple. Yes, wind tunnels are incredibly accurate and valuable tools for evaluating aerodynamics, but “it depends” is still true as often as not when evaluating test results. Wasn’t that helpful?

Overall, my simplest goal has always been to inform—to help people come away with, if not all the answers, at least better questions. And in trying to write about beta-glucans, I found myself straying too far from that goal. In all my columns, I’ve only had to issue one correction, when I misattributed the independent computation fluid dynamics work that Matthew Godo did to a cooperative effort with Zipp. That’s it. And I’m incredibly proud of that. I think there is way too much of a “print first, ask questions later” mentality in journalism today as everyone races to be first. That’s one of the best parts of being in print: I’m never going to beat the web, so since I’m not breaking the news, I can afford to be careful. But I also have to be careful, because issuing retractions is a slower process.

This is a lot of words to say why I am not writing about something, but I think this is a challenge facing all journalists today. There’s power in what we write, both for good and for bad. I hate writing negative reviews, because of what damage I might do to a company’s reputation based off what could be an one-time bad experience.

The most flack I’ve ever taken (and my biggest writing regret) was over my article on bike boxes. I criticized the durability of a certain manufacturer’s cases. This is a product with generally positive reviews, and some of best retailers in the sport stand behind it. I tried to temper my criticism with some positives, but I could have chosen not to mention it, and I wish that’s what I’d done, because the article would have been fine without it. This wasn’t a case where I was asked to review a specific product. I have passed on reviewing a product I was asked to write about because my experience with the product wasn’t positive for a variety of reasons. If a certain flavor of sports drink doesn’t agree with me, does that matter to you? If a piece of clothing doesn’t fit me, does that matter to you? Defects happen. Mistakes happen. And not everything is designed for everyone. So I like to give companies the benefit of the doubt; I think most companies out there are doing their best to make a product that is a reasonable balance of price and quality.


Beta-glucans are found naturally in the cell walls of cereals like oats and barley.

But what about the other way around? What about positive reviews that don’t acknowledge that just because we like something, that doesn’t necessarily make it good? I think we need to be at least as skeptical about being positive. Maybe I’m just being arrogant, but I believe that what I write here has influence. That people, to some extent, consider what the authors in this magazine say when they make decisions about where to race, how to train or what to buy. That’s a real responsibility, and it’s one I take seriously.

I’m hoping that the topic of skepticism is something that will resonate with triathletes, in spite of their fondness for what’s new or different. Triathletes are notorious early adopters, but they are also, generally speaking, pretty smart.

I think most companies out there are doing their best to make a product that is a reasonable balance of price and quality.

There’s a wonderful magazine out there called Skeptic. I can only imagine how nerve-wracking it is to write for that publication. I got some insight when Michael Shermer, the editor, took on my own personal favorite skeptic and deflatorof-BS, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, on Twitter. Basically, you have two guys whose favorite thing is taking other guys apart taking each other apart. Perpetual motion may not exist, but perpetual skepticism certainly does. And I think that’s a danger as well. You can end up never believing anything.


The skepical author out for a run.

Not everything true has a peer-reviewed study demonstrating its truth. Nor should it. But there is a burden of proof that I think every journalist is obligated to uphold. I do my best. I couldn’t meet that standard on this topic. I apologize both to you the reader, since I think this is a topic that’s really interesting, and to those who lent their time and expertise in the expectation that I’d share their information with you. But I hope the discussion of these broader issues has been at least somewhat engaging, and I plan to be back next issue with something more substantive.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue.