Nutrition, being food-related, suffers a unique disadvantage when it comes to public perception: Everyone is an expert. At least that’s what the prevailing belief seems to be.
Ask anyone if they’re “knowledgeable” about nutrition and my guess is they’d say yes. In fact, I know they would. Several years ago, those indefatigable folks at the International Food Information Council conducted a series of person-on-the-street interviews, asking respondents if they considered themselves knowledgeable about nutrition. All confidently attested to their nutrition savvy — and all proved the contrary when asked follow-up questions that tested this self-professed expertise.
The logic latent in this collective fallacy appears to be, “Of course I know all about nutrition — I’ve eaten every day of my life!” (Oddly, few average Joes and Janes would profess culinary expertise they do not possess.) This collective belief in some innate ability to understand the nuances of human metabolism is a turnstile for all the nutrition fads and crazes that assault us on a perennial basis.
The result is not only an open field for misinformation but a public that accepts, and even rewards, the same. (How else could someone of Dr. Phil’s build and lack of nutrition background make millions selling a diet book?)
It gets really tough when people with credentials in other scientific fields hop on the fad bandwagon; they are the worst offenders when it comes to pushing some off-kilter notion of what people should eat to keep them healthy. Unfortunately, they’ve got the initials, the vocabulary and the bravado to fool all of the people all of the time. MDs are at the top of the heap for this sort of intransigence. (As an aside, how many MDs do you know who would accept a registered dietitian’s intrusion on their methodology of surgery?) Yet until the 1990s, you could count on a single hand the medical schools with a mandatory nutrition science course.
Whether nutrition fads are a result of, or a catalyst of, the “I eat, therefore I know” doctrine, the job of imposing sense into the discussion of nutrition is an Odyssean undertaking.
One of my favorite examples of the difficulties in bringing nutrition communication from lab to table is a pair of studies released 10 days apart — one concludes fiber in the diet helps prevent colon cancer; the other concludes fiber has no effect on colon cancer risk. Both are well designed, well constructed double-blind studies. They epitomize my personal dictum that “for every Ph.D. there is an equal and opposite Ph.D.” They, and the thousands of studies like them, prove that the science of what people should eat is still open to discovery and interpretation, and therefore ought to be communicated as such.
In a nutshell, we are a long way from incontrovertible statements save of the most obvious kind. And even then, we’d better have all our ducks in a row before making them.
So, the next time you run across a report — even by supposed experts — that makes an audacious assertion, take it with a grain of salt.
Speaking of the folks at IFIC, they've put together a couple of guides for identifying fads and communicating nutrition science. Access these at:
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