A friend once said to me that the opening phrase of a media article most feared by nutritionists is: “a new study now proves that ….”. She’s right.
The interface between science and journalistic endeavour is an area of constant tension. Rarely does a singular study change the course of knowledge. This comes about by the gradual accumulation of a body of evidence, each study with its own strengths and flaws. And for every five studies that prove a point there are bound to be at least four which disprove it, or vice versa.
It’s an unfortunate truth that cumulative evidence over long periods of time is just not attention-grabbing material. Nevertheless that’s what forms the basis of evidence-based recommendations such as the food and nutrition guidelines.
Meanwhile it’s frequently opinion, and our propensity for storytelling which creates human interest and media attention. Regrettably at times it is presented as fact.
By way of example, I’d like to share a recent frustration with one of our daily papers. A few weeks ago there was a large, well-meaning, colourful feature about the sugar content of popular children’s breakfast cereals. The headline described them as junk food. My concerns about this article were multiple:
1. The sugar content of cereals is hardly news, when every single packet, by law, displays the sugar content per 100g.
2. The sugar content per 100g is really only useful when comparing between cereals in the supermarket. It does not equate to the sugar content per serve, which in this particular case would have been about a third of that colourfully highlighted.
3. A public health advisor contributed: “cereal manufacturers use layers of sugar on fat on salt on more sugar to get people hooked on the product”. So, you could be forgiven for thinking that breakfast cereal – surely a good product to develop a life long habit for – is less preferable than sending little Johnny off to school on an empty stomach, or with a belly full of bacon and eggs.
4. There wasn’t any information which would help the average person to put the sugar content of these possible breakfast options into context with other possible breakfast options. I don’t know any children who’d be happy to eat weetbix or porridge without sugar or fruit, which would essentially render either of these options equivalent in total sugar to most of the cereals listed in the article. Unfortunately the other recommended option, “homemade bircher muesli” requires a luxury of time that most of us don’t have, not to mention it being made with fruit juice, grated apple and yoghurt, adding a substantial amount of sugar.
So the average Mum (household shopper) is left feeling guilty (yet again) for feeding her children something they will actually eat for breakfast, and has no idea what she should replace it with.
But she only has to wait a week before another article from the same paper gives her a solution. This extols the health benefits of maple syrup and encourages parents to drizzle it over their children’s breakfasts for “nutritive value”.
And we wonder why people get confused….
If you have any similar examples to share I’d love to hear them! Just submit a comment below.