July 29, 2013
Have you ever wondered why one day scientists/nutritionists say something is good for you and then the next, they say it is not? Why does the nutrition community keep “changing their minds?” In the 1970’s eggs were reported to be really “good for you;” then in the 1980’s and early ‘90’s, the public was told eggs were bad for you. How can the scientific community be so wrong and how can scientific facts change? A fact is a fact, right?
There are several influences on how the results of scientific research are reported and what the public understands about the data being presented. First, there are the studies themselves. At any given time, there may be individual studies being conducted simultaneously by researchers around the world about the same substance, but the studies are not identical and the results likely will not be the same.
If I were to conjure up a fictitious example, let’s say that four groups of researchers in four different countries are studying the effects of lollipop consumption. One group wants to know the impact of lollipop consumption on weight gain among children ages 4-7. Another group is investigating the correlation between lollipops and tooth decay in children ages 6-12. At another university, researchers want to know if eating lollipops acts as a stress reliever for high school students taking exams and a fourth group is measuring the influence of lollipops as an aid in smoking cessation among adults 21 and older. Four groups, four studies, one candy. The results will not only vary, but will be released at various times. We might expect a headline that says: “Research Confirms Lollipops Can Rot Kids’ Teeth” and then six months later, a headline that says: “Test Taking Teens Should Eat Lollipops.” So, should your child eat or abstain from lollipops? Additional confusing headlines will boast the results of the other studies. A casual reader might ask after the flurry of headlines months or years apart, “Wait I thought lollipops were bad for you, but now you tell me they actually have benefits?”
As you can see, the study results don’t actually contradict each other because the researchers set out to measure different outcomes using different methodologies. The results are unrelated, but given the same subject – lollipops – consumers may see a common thread.
Add to this, the interpretation of the data. As much as researchers try to lay out the facts and data in a logical and understandable manner, reporters and even some health professionals, who are less expert on the topic, may see things differently. Sometimes they just don’t understand the topic, sometimes they manipulate the data to say what they want. Sensational headlines help media outlets attract readers, viewers or online visitors. So while a headline that says, “Research Suggest that Lollipops May Help Alleviate Stress Among Test Taking Teens,” may be more accurate, the phrase “Test Taking Teens Should Eat Lollipops” begs the question, “why?” getting the audience to read on or tune in.
All this is not to say that from time to time scientists don’t disagree with one another as to how they interpret the data. Some are more conservative, some are less. Sometimes a study will have unusual findings, or findings that do not agree with the bulk of the scientific evidence, a “blip” if you will, in the data. News media is often attracted to these type of stories that are contrary to everyday belief, because they are provocative. However, the danger lies when these stories are promoted as fact, rather than what they are: “blips” in the data. Sometimes findings that are contrary to conventional thinking are in fact accurate, but, more likely than not, they have different findings for a reason: using a different study design, not controlling for certain variables, or studying a slightly different compound or dose level. However, that doesn’t mean common thinking about nutrition should change.
Good scientific thinking is based on the weight of the scientific evidence, which means majority rules. So next time you read a sexy, sensational headline that is off the wall, ask yourself, what does this mean? Why might this finding have occurred? Who is promoting this finding? Most likely, you’ll find that it’s not that nutrition advice is constantly changing, but that the headlines may be misleading us to think it is.
Haley, an AE in Kellen’s Atlanta office, serves as President of the Calorie Control Council, a non-profit trade association in the light and reduced-calorie food and beverage industry. She also serves as the Executive Director of a non-profit trade association in the food ingredients world.