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How Flawed Science is Driving Demand

❯ SCIENCE OPINION

The growing influence media has on academic research and how publicizing skewed science affects consumer perception.

By: Roger Clemens, DrPH, CFS, CNS, FACN, FIFT, FIAST   |   Summer 2015

If you are a food company carefully monitoring the consumer sentiments and media coverage surrounding the “science” related to food ingredients, you will not be encouraged by reading the New York Times of June 1, 2015. The business page story headlined “Beyond Publish or Perish, Academic Papers Look to Make a Splash” deals with the social sciences and the growing undue influence media has on academic research. The story suggests that research is funded and published, in part, by judging what sort of clamor the research will raise in consumer media. If the reporter had chosen food science, rather than social sciences, the evidence might have been even more compelling.

Research that confirms the safety of any food ingredient is of almost no interest to consumer media. Alternatively, any research that suggests that consumption of a food additive may have harmful consequences is lapped up by media and consumers in much the same way we would gather around a campfire as children to listen to ghost stories. The almost pathological need to be frightened by our food and food components drives much of the organic, natural, clean label and anti-GMO food movements, as well as the social media hucksters flogging “healthy” alternatives.

The Times reports that the publishers of the respected journal Science have as many as 40 professionals pitching its published research into social media. Similarly, many universities pitch unpublished research findings prior to peer review, in order to gain sensational publicity in the popular press. Many publications within the scientific community indicate nearly half of press releases and print copy exaggerate study results for increased news coverage.

The report acknowledges that one of the dangers of the new science/media relationship is that many journalists are not equipped to distinguish good science from shoddy research. That is a particular risk when the work does not wend its way through the usual academic, peer-review channels before entering the news media’s consciousness and even university press outlets. If that’s a problem for traditional media that, after all, has a stated goal of objectivity, imagine the problem posed by social media forums without any goals beyond the pursuit of an often hidden agenda. The food industry, of course, is well aware of the problem. Manufacturers are pledging to reformulate products away from ingredients that they know are safe. They know the science behind the food ingredients is sound and they know that the anecdotal evidence is comprehensive having been accumulated over decades and, occasionally, centuries.

They know, too, that whatever ingredients they go to next may have limited consumer acceptance and that reformulation, which is scientifically and statutorily unwarranted, is fast becoming an expensive and often completely unnecessary exercise.

It is not just that media often lack the expertise to fully consider the science behind any claim. It is that the media often seem to be beyond caring. Not long ago a group of us gathered outside of Chicago to discuss the relationship between science and consumer media, among other things. We were compensated through small donations to our favorite charities by a company that makes food ingredients. Those ingredients are comprised of naturally sourced colors and food stabilizers, including the seaweed-derived stabilizer, carrageenan.

In social media circles, those small donations to humanitarian organizations make whatever we might feel about particular ingredients suspect, despite decades of research credentials and lifelong commitments to real science. So be it. If anything, the Times story should confirm that chasing grants or media coverage can be at least equally ignoble.

Funding issues aside, it is easy to pick examples of shallow reviews of science issues, even in respected media. Fortune magazine recently (May 27, 2015) carried a provocative story that asked the question “Almond milk sales are soaring, but is it good for you?”

While the nutritional profile of this product differs from that of cow’s milk, the nutritional quality of this product should not be in question, contrary to many of the comments made in this story. The piece was largely about what it costs in water-deprived California to raise almonds and the moral decision to drink almond milk. In roughly the same time period, a story that two popular Quick-Service Restaurants were going to reformulate away from artificial colors or flavors was carried throughout mainstream media and duly applauded in social media – almost as if one’s favorite stuffed-crust pizza was now a more healthful food or implying that the colors and flavors were not safe.

There was no discussion of the science behind these decisions and, really, how could there be? Instead, the public peppered the media with quotes that manufacturers were responding to consumer demand. That’s fine. Responding to consumer demand is one of the actions fundamental to business. It is important, though, that industry understands the skewed nature of flawed science that, unfortunately, now drives consumer demand down a dangerous path.

The author Roger Clemens is Associate Director of the Regulatory Science program within the USC School of Pharmacy in Los Angeles, US, and a member of the Food Science Matters Advisory Council.

Download a PDF copy here: Nutrition_Insight_Summer_2015_56_Regulation