There is an old adage that the squeaking wheel gets the most oil. If you need proof that adage still rings true, consider where we are with food science research. Much of the time, the loudest are heard, regardless of qualifications, while the more informed and experienced are silenced.
For instance, a particular celebrity used her visibility to help lead a movement of parents denying their children the proper vaccinations needed to keep them safe and healthy, resulting in a media frenzy. Scarily enough, a measles outbreak occurred at Disneyland last year, a disease that had effectively been eliminated because of vaccinations, but has seen a rising number of outbreaks in recent years.
Similarly, a well-known food blogger, along with her online following, petitioned that Subway remove azodicarbonamide from its bread. Azodicarbonamide, or the “yoga mat chemical” as was the misnomer in the media, has been scientifically proven safe in foods at the very low levels at which it’s used. Regardless of the facts, thanks to the blogger’s online footprint, an Internet search of the ingredient results in two takeaways: it’s used in yoga mats and it might not be safe.
So why don’t popular headlines support the science? In traditional media, you can attribute part of it to the current dearth of publications with actual science writers. In social media, where there is almost no commitment to objectivity, the average food blogger has come to realize that when it comes to food, we like nothing more than a good scare. This ought to change, but you probably can’t count on it.
You need only look to carrageenan as a prime example of flawed science accepted as gospel. Naturally derived from red seaweed, carrageenan is used to stabilize many of the foods and drinks we consume every day, such as dairy beverages and desserts. There have been numerous studies performed that meet every scientific standard, all of which prove carrageenan’s safety. However, in today’s fearful environment, flawed studies that connect carrageenan to inflammation and diabetes are cited by everyone from your favorite aunt to traditional media.
In some of these studies, carrageenan was tested on faulty cells that had considerable defects, a fact that was confirmed by the company who provided those cells. This supplier notified all affected parties of the mistake, yet neither scientists nor peer-reviewed journals that published these studies have yet to make any public clarification regarding this fundamental research flaw.
Instead, we’ll continue to see these studies cited as legitimate. And we’ll continue to see studies cited that have experimented with the wrong material, or studies that inject carrageenan into the foot of an animal (rather than combining it with food), and other methodology sins.
Bad science is not good for anyone. Those charged with informing us about the food sciences – either scientists themselves or the science media – are finding some audiences are now so skeptical of legitimate food science that they can only be filled with despair.
The next time you see a new version of the food pyramid displayed, you might wonder why fear isn’t identified prominently as part of the modern diet.
To learn about the proven science behind our food not found in the headlines, read Myra Weiner’s research paper in the peer-reviewed journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology.