Take Initiative Against Pseudoscientific Health Reporting

Nov. 16, 2007
Processors should take the initiative against pseudoscience health reporting.

Dave is out of the country, so I'm using his column this month. I'm glad for the soapbox, because two things happened recently that could signal a major shift in how the public perceives processed foods.

On Oct. 9, New York Times science editor John Tierney wrote a beachhead-storming article on the "information cascade." That's a sound-bite reduction of, "If you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth."

Tierney's article, "Diet and Fat: A Severe Case of Mistaken Consensus," is an eye-opening look at health myths which, through the repetition of agendized propaganda, are accepted as fact. In Food Processing and its sister publication, Wellness Foods, we've written much on the "fat is evil, corn syrup is deadly, sodium kills" canards.

What makes Tierney's report so significant, other than being well-written, is its arrival at a time the public is ripe for the message.

Then there're the decades of misinformation - often deliberate - about sodium. (A sterling example appeared the same day as Tierney's New York Times piece but in the Chicago Tribune. Covering a full two-page spread, "Worth your salt?" spouted the formulaic, panic-inducing pseudoscience typical of sodium coverage.)

"Well-funded salt opponents are rolling out new studies at a furious pace, but the numbers don't add up - literally," says Richard Hanneman, president of Salt Institute in Alexandria, Va. "One wonders whether editors and peer reviewers are even looking at the science."

This brings us to the second incident - an unexpected coda to the corruption of science for personalized interest. While the FDA is holding a public hearing on sodium on Nov. 29, as sort of a preamble, GMA/FPA and the Center for Science in the Public Interest co-sponsored a conference on salt last month.

"Perhaps GMA/FPA and CSPI expected the delegation to come back with recommendations to cut sodium in new food products or to provide government incentives to produce low-sodium foods or even craft some vast 'social marketing' approach to convince Americans to eat less sodium," posits Hanneman. "But a funny thing happened after all these options were identified and discussed: The delegates overwhelmingly voted to encourage a broad approach to improving diet quality and rejecting, specifically, an approach targeting single nutrients such as sodium."

Although nutrition misinformation is an issue that must be addressed by media and government, it also is incumbent upon processors to make better use of same. Processors must be prepared to attack bad science, and bad science reporting, proactively, and with real information.

Honest food, nutrition and health experts always have endorsed adhering to a science-based approach to nutrition guidelines. And that means all of the science, not just the cherry-picked stuff.

A solid approach that reaches out to popular media with facts is needed. It's time to give up on the industry standard of "reaction." That only reduces such agendized controversies into "we said/they said" sound bites. Processors will lose that one every time.

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