As a former journalist, I still look ruefully on what some view as the prime directive in news rooms: “If it bleeds, it leads.” That is, lurid headlines and sensationalistic coverage are a natural result of the current hyper-competitive state of journalism—and the endless pursuit of clicks and views.
While 2016 was declared the year of “fake news,” misinformation and deception have been hallmarks of food and health news for much longer.
But without an accurate picture of what is truly known about food and nutrition—and the science behind it—how can consumers make well-informed and healthful decisions about the food and beverages they consume? (Our 2012 Food and Health Survey famously reported that Americans find doing their taxes easier than knowing how to eat healthier.)
The good news is that there’s a lot of … well … good news. The bad news is, it doesn’t receive enough attention.
To give just one example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a few days ago that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages among high school students fell dramatically from 2007 to 2015. There were similar declines from 2011 to 2015 in consumption of other caloric beverages such as milk and fruit juice. (There isn’t yet reliable data on trends in water or diet soda consumption.)
However, the news attracted limited coverage, with only about 100 million media impressions—a rough estimate of a story’s potential reach. A Health Day article that was republished on a number of sites accounted for about half of that number, while the other half is attributable to a single story that came from a non-American source—the UK’s Daily Mail.
Contrast that with the typical story about how this food or that ingredient “will kill you,” often from sources far less reputable than the CDC, that receive billions of media impressions.
This observation isn’t just anecdotal. Researchers a few years ago found that, the less reliable a study in a medical journal was, the more likely the media were to report on it.
It should come as little surprise that our Food and Health Survey revealed three years of steady decline (from 78 percent in 2012 to 61 percent in 2015) in consumer confidence in the safety of our food supply. That number finally increased in 2016, to 66 percent. While we don’t know exactly why, it’s not a stretch of the imagination that a historic, intensely covered presidential campaign might have reduced the media’s normal supply of scientific fear-mongering.
So if you want to be a savvy consumer, bear this in mind: If your diet is one of moderation, variety, and balance, then you’re probably doing the right thing. Just be sure to save enough room for a little skepticism.