What about the nutrition and health headlines we see in the newspapers, hear on television, or read on the Internet daily? Nutrition stories make good headlines. And with good reason, because what we eat and drink is something that affects everyone of us. While it can sometimes be difficult to demystify the jargon and try to identify what, if any, changes we need to make to improve our health and well being, there are ways to help identify whether the information is science-based and relevant to you.
While family, friends and books are all important, the main sources of information on nutrition today are the media and the Internet. A lot of good information based on sound science is available. However, sometimes information on diet and food safety can be oversimplified, lack context or even be downright inaccurate. So how can you tell one from the other?
People tend to believe what they hear repeatedly. Even when it has no basis in fact, a claim can seem credible if heard often enough. There is no scientific evidence to support this claim! Writers and journalists need to simplify information so that it can be delivered in the context of a story or article. This simplification can sometimes lead to important information being overlooked. For example, stories may fail to place the finding into context or do not include background information.
The Food and Nutrition Science Alliance (FANSA) is a coalition of several health organizations, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has developed the “10 Red Flags of Junk Science” to help consumers identify potential misinformation. Let’s evaluate them.
The Ten Red Flags of Junk Science
Be careful if the information contains:
- Recommendations that promise a quick fix.
- Dire warnings of danger from a single product or regime.
Is this craziest prescription drug ad ever? This is so twisted. Showing all these happy subliminal messages while saying in a soothing voice how much this drug will kill you….
- Claims that sound too good to be true.
The claim: “Made from sugar so it tastes just like sugar.”
The truth: Merisant Co., which makes sugar rival Equal, sued Splenda over its marketing slogan and advertising campaign, arguing that the company led consumers to believe Splenda was healthier and more natural than other sugar substitutes. In 2007, the two sides reached a settlement over the slogan. A jury also reached a verdict, but as a result of the settlement, it was not read in court. Splenda later changed its slogan to “It’s made from sugar. It tastes like sugar. But it’s not sugar.” Splenda’s main ingredient is sucralose, which is not sugar and is made in a laboratory. Sugar molecules are used in the process, but the final product contains no sugar.
- Simplistic conclusions drawn from a complex study.
The claim: DanActive helps prevent colds and flu; one daily serving of Activia relieves temporary irregularity and helps with “slow intestinal transit time.”
The truth: After an FTC complaint regarding the substantiation of its claims, Dannon agreed to settle FTC charges and drop claims that the yogurt reduced the likelihood of getting sick and helped with, ahem, irregularity. In 2010, a judge ordered Dannon to pay $45 million in damages.
- Recommendations based on a single study.
The claim: Norelco Clean Water Machine – Makes tap water clean or cleaner.
The truth: In 1988, a judge found that Norelco sold its Clean Water Machine even though it knew that the purifier added a potentially hazardous chemical to tap water. The filter had been made with cement containing methylene chloride, which was considered a cancer-causing agent. Norelco was forbidden to misrepresent any tests of its products or the performance of the purifier.
- Dramatic statements that are refuted by reputable scientific organisation
The claim: “Now Helps Support Your Child’s Immunity” and provides 25% of the daily recommended amount of antioxidants, nutrients and vitamins.
The truth: After drawing fire from critics during the height of the swine-flu scare in 2009, Kellogg’s removed the claims from its boxes, saying, “While science shows that these antioxidants help support the immune system, given the public attention on H1N1, the company decided to make this change.
- Lists of “good” and “bad” foods.
- Recommendations made to help sell a product.
The claim: The vitamin and herbal supplement, advertised as a “miracle cold buster,” fights off colds and builds immune systems.
The truth: In 2006 ABC’s Good Morning America investigated Airborne’s claims that it was a cold remedy, reporting that its clinical trials weren’t conducted by doctors. Two years later, the company agreed to pay customers $23 million in a class action settlement.
- Recommendations based on studies published without peer review.
The claim: Frozen vegetables have 30% more vitamins than fresh vegetables
The truth: The ASA said: “Because the evidence related only to vitamin C and because it was not always the case that frozen vegetables had 30% more vitamins than the fresh equivalent, we considered the claim “30% more vitamins than fresh vegetables” had not been substantiated and was misleading.
- Recommendations from studies that ignore differences among individuals or groups
The claim: Increases a man’s penis size, among other things.
The truth: While ExtenZe claimed that its product had been clinically tested, no credible scientific evidence was ever presented for this male-enhancement product. In 2010, ExtenZe had to pay $6 million in a class action for misleading consumers.
Please, keep open your mind, but also think critically. You can decide for yourself, using the above 10 rules to help guide your decision making, if the purported claims being made for a wide variety of “hot news” and “latest and greatest” bordering on almost “miracle” products make any sense for you to spend your hard earned money on relying on them to somehow produce lasting “magical” results in your life.