As with any other year, 2014 had its share of food and nutrition fads. Undoubtedly, social media helped to drive the viral nature of some of these trends. Every type of consumer, from teens to Millennials to adults, could easily find blogs and websites touting the latest weight loss trick or health cure-all. But as with other diet trends in the past, we know there is no one solution, and many of these fads are not based on credible scientific research. As we look ahead to 2015, we anticipate some persistent trends that will require science-based communications and context in order to improve consumer understanding.
1. We’ve reached “peak coconut”: For the online food and nutrition community, 2014 was a year-long trip to the tropics. Misinformation touting the benefits of coconut oil is prevalent in social media, with bloggers and advertisements promising that coconut oil would cure every health problem from obesity to Alzheimer’s disease. Though some research has associated coconut oil with modest health benefits in raising HDL cholesterol, it’s definitely no “cure-all.” Check out our Coconut Oil and Health Fact Sheet for a science-based perspective on the coconut oil craze.
2. Animal Fats: Are They Back? Coconut oil isn’t the only saturated fat getting attention from dieters. This year, traditional and social media alike have been “churning” with articles about butter. Recently, research in Annals of Internal Medicine suggested that the link between high saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease may not be as strong as the scientific community once thought. This research article prompted many media outlets to proclaim that “butter is back.” One prominent magazine even went so far as to advise consumers to “eat butter.” However, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming no more than ten percent of total calories from saturated fat, which the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee draft recommendations currently maintain. Dietary guidance on total fat should comprise no more than 20-35 percent of adult daily calorie intake. For more information on dietary fats, view the IFIC Foundation’s Dietary Fats: Balancing Health & Flavor.
3. “Clean” Eating: “Clean”, “natural”, “organic”… we’ve all heard these terms used to describe certain foods, and while they’ve been used to demonize other foods, the fact is that these terms do not automatically mean the product has any fewer calories or any more nutrients. In 2015, watch for this trend to continue, but ultimately to be trumped by taste and cost factors, as the International Food Information Council Foundation Food & Health Survey has shown these factors to be most important in food and beverage purchase decisions. (IFIC Foundation, 2014)
4. Labeling: A picture paints a thousand words, but does a food package need to? The FDA proposal to label “Added Sugars” and the ongoing debate around labeling foods produced using biotechnology made labeling a major issue in 2014. Expect these discussions to continue into 2015 and to influence some consumers’ food and beverage consumption decisions as they look for ways to improve their health. It will be important to provide education and communication on the science regarding these potential label changes. For example, IFIC Foundation conducted consumer research to understand how people may interpret “Added Sugars” information on the Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP). Their responses suggest that the term “Added Sugars” is not well understood and comprehension of sugars-related information on the NFP decreases when it is introduced. Concerted efforts to provide additional guidance on how to properly interpret and utilize “Added Sugars” information would be needed, if it is added (no pun intended) by FDA.
5. “One-Size Fits All” Weight Loss Plans: This year, members of social media were buzzing with information about going gluten-free, wheat-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, or anything-“free” as a solution to weight loss. Gluten-free diets were already trendy prior to 2013, and despite a large body of scientific evidence that suggests no benefit to the general population, consumers increasingly embraced it in an attempt to lose weight or for other health benefits in 2014.
For bread-lovers everywhere, there are some early indications that this trend may be on its way out. Furthermore, recent research has suggested that there is no “one-size fits all” or “best” way to lose weight, and that dieters can lose weight by sticking to a healthful diet plan that matches their calorie needs and taste preferences, and getting regular physical activity. For more information on this research, read “Research Points to Adherence as Key Factor for Effective Weight Loss,” also in this issue.
You may have noticed a pattern with the trends listed, which is that few of them are backed by solid science. This may be partially due to some stakeholders’ overinflating the impact of a single study, and social media “fluff” masquerading as fact that often goes unchecked. While credible scientists and health professionals are attempting to balance these discussions, it is often done after the article has already been viewed by thousands, and comments at the bottom of articles may be ignored. With little to no fact-checking or seeking expert input on online information, it can be hard for the public to know where to turn for reliable food and nutrition information and increasingly, consumers trust their own judgment or the opinions of friends and family for their food advice (IFIC Foundation, 2013). While this may be better than ascribing to the latest fad diet, it will be important to improve our communication of the science to help enable informed consumer choices.
For more information, visit Evaluating Scientific Evidence.
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