What Scares Food Scientists? Headline Writers
News media are perpetually redesigning the most attractive manner in which to disseminate news content to generate the greatest possible interest in their product. They are always seeking to make news attractive. They must do so because in the competitive marketplace audiences have many options from which to choose to receive their news. If one news source is more attractive than another, the latter risks losing audience and ultimately profit.

To combat this erosion of audience, news media organizations market themselves. One manner in which publishers market is to promote the content of articles, and the quickest, cheapest and perhaps oldest method to do this is to draft eye-catching headlines.

Thus, when the Tribune Co.’s St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times published on February 3 an article under the headline, “Which foods scare the experts?” odds are likely it was enough to draw the appeal of even the most disinterested readers. The audience, however, was treated to a straightforward assessment of recent attention-grabbing headlines about mad cow disease, farm-raised salmon toxicology, and the health implications of trans fats. And that appraisal, provided in large part by members of the Institute of Food Technologists, directed attention to more pressing concerns. “From the public health perspective,” said Mike Doyle, University of Georgia, “the actual levels [of dioxins in farmed salmon] are still well below what’s considered to be a tolerable level.”

The article drew extensively from opinions provided by Doyle and Christine Bruhn and Linda Harris, both of University of California at Davis, when it reported that food safety experts believe consumers face greater risk of illness from foodborne bacteria than from mad cow disease. Bruhn noted that Salmonella in bean and alfalfa sprouts can hide under the seed coat and be impervious to washing. Harris addressed the food safety chain from farm to table and was quoted focusing on the grocery store. “The approach today is that every step in the [food safety] process takes responsibility from knowing where they’re buying from,” she said. “If a store is conscientious about cleanliness, that says something about the way they do business.” The St. Petersburg Times circulates more than 300,000 papers daily, and the Knight Ridder Tribune News Service, which distributed this article, provides news content to most major news markets in the nation.

The perspective of IFT Food Science Communicators was not just limited to Doyle, Bruhn, and Harris in the St. Petersburg Times. Christina Stark, Cornell University, brought facts to the myth making the rounds that “processed” vegetables are not as nutritious as fresh vegetables. In Cooking Light magazine’s February issue, Stark said, “Once you get them cooked, the nutrients provided by fresh, frozen or canned vegetables are all about the same.” Stark explained that canned and frozen vegetables are usually picked at the peak of ripeness and processed within hours of their harvest. Sometimes they’re more nutrient rich than fresh produce that’s traveled long distances to reach market, and left for days in supermarket displays or overcooked at home. Stark’s final tip was a strong recommendation for people to buy produce they like and is convenient, and to aim for a variety. Cooking Light is a monthly consumer-oriented publication with 1.5-million readership.

Larger and more ubiquitous than Cooking Light, Reader’s Digest turned up the heat on the topic of vegetable nutrients in its March issue. And Barry Swanson, Washington State University, cooled the rhetoric of a study on microwaved vegetables that began making the rounds of news outlets last fall. The study suggested that microwaving eliminated nearly all the antioxidants from broccoli. Swanson set the record straight. “They cooked it to death,” he said, noting that microwaving a serving of broccoli for five minutes in two-thirds of a cup of water was much longer than necessary.

Reader’s Digest has more than 11 million subscribers nationwide.

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In This Article

  1. Food Safety and Defense