How To Navigate Nutrition Science in the Media

Navigating science in the media

In today’s world, we have more information at our fingertips than ever before. While the plethora of science news presents seemingly endless opportunities for learning, the wealth of potential sources also presents a unique set of challenges. With every trending scientific topic and the social media conversation that follows, it’s increasingly difficult to sift fact from fiction. How can you successfully navigate today’s science news? Read on for helpful tips.

Be Careful With Clickbait

The power of headlines is undeniable– those few words often determine whether you click on an article, share it without reading it, or scroll past it. While there’s not necessarily harm in reading an article simply because you’ve been intrigued by the headline—that’s what they’re designed to do!—it’s important to keep in mind that the message conveyed in a headline may suggest an exaggeration of the truth or stands without context. That’s why it’s so crucial to read an article before sharing it. And as you’re reading, ask yourself: Does this seem like a simple answer to a complex question?

For example, articles may present a single food as the ultimate cure to all our health problems. While these “trendy” foods may indeed have health benefits, no one food can meet all the complex needs of our bodies, which rely on diverse nutrients provided by many different foods to function well. At the end of the day, our bodies need balance, variety, and moderation when it comes to what we consume—a fact not always stressed by the latest nutritional trends in the media.

Study the Studies

Social media content or articles that cite scientific studies often feel more accurate, demonstrating the legitimacy of the claims being made. But it’s important to look closely at the studies these posts draw from—not all research is equal, and scrutinizing how a study was conducted is critical to assessing the validity of the claims and conclusions that are being drawn from it. While there are many different types of studies, the kinds that are most often featured in the media are randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and cohort studies. These studies differ in design, which means the approach they use to collect evidence and the conclusions that can be drawn from the study will differ.

More specifically, randomized controlled trials are robust experimental studies that seek to provide evidence of cause-and-effect relationships. For example, if you wanted to better understand the effectiveness of a vitamin supplement on improving bone health, reviewing evidence from high quality RCTs would be a great place to start. In an RCT, participants would be randomly assigned to one of two or more groups – one group would receive the vitamin supplement and other group(s) might receive the same vitamin supplement, a similar but different supplement, or a placebo that does not contain anything. By comparing the change in bone health between the participants in each group at the end of the study, researchers would be able to determine the effectiveness of the vitamin supplement compared with the other treatments.

In contrast, cohort studies are observational by design and are not designed to assess cause-and-effect relationships. Instead, cohort studies generally follow one group of people (typically over long periods of time) who share common characteristics, assessing whether exposure to a certain risk factor leads to a specific outcome in the group. For example, a cohort study might examine risk factors for developing a health condition such as type 2 diabetes. Over time, researchers might document participants who developed type 2 diabetes and examine factors those participants had in common, such as frequency of consuming a certain food or beverage, age, gender, income, or even their zip code of residence. Check out this link to get a summary of the different types of studies that you may see referenced in the media.

Know the Lingo

In addition to knowing the differences between types of studies, it’s important to also understand the language that is commonly used in scientific research. For example, you may have heard the frequently cited phrase “Correlation does not equal causation.” But what exactly does this mean? Simply put, correlation means that two variables are associated or related to each other—but that one variable does not cause the other, or vice versa. For example, some states have higher rates of obesity, but while a certain state may have a higher rate of obesity than other states, living in that state does not cause obesity. That is, obesity is correlated with living in that state, but not caused by it. Phrases in science headlines such as “more likely to” and “may cause” sound like they may indicate causation, when in reality, this language likely refers to a correlation.

Causation, however, means that one variable does directly influence another. For example, not having enough iron in your body results in iron-deficiency anemia.

Take a Deeper Dive

One final note on randomized controlled trials and cohort studies: While RCTs are considered the gold standard for measuring cause and effect, one RCT alone does not prove causality. However, replicated RCT studies that come to similar conclusions increase the degree of certainty on a topic. In contrast, when multiple cohort studies show similar results, the evidence also becomes stronger, but still only supports a correlation, because the evidence is observational by nature. In fact, findings from cohort studies can be tested through an RCT study design to examine the exact cause of the observations.

The bottom line? Science is constantly evolving, and one study is not enough evidence to support a change in your personal health habits or behavior. Rather, carefully evaluating studies in the context of an entire body of scientific literature—along with consulting with your healthcare providers—can help you make better-informed decisions.

Beware of Bias

Everyone has biases, and it’s important to acknowledge when our biases come into play—including when we read, watch, and listen to the media—which has its own biases! Every journalist, scientific researcher, and media outlet has their own opinions and perspectives, so it’s no surprise that if you Google the health benefits of probiotics or the safety of conventional produce, no two articles will have the same exact message.

While sound science certainly exists in the media, it’s hard to distinguish between what’s truly backed by research and what’s primarily buzzworthy. Fortunately, we here at Food Insight have you covered—with the tips above, as well as our own articles featuring evidence-based resources developed by our in-house experts on nutrition, agriculture, and food safety. With a few helpful tools, you can successfully navigate the science you encounter in the media.

This article was written by Marisa Paipongna, with contributions from Stephanie Johnson, IFIC’s former Virginia Tech Dietetic Intern.