Wendy Reinhardt

Consumers’ appetite for food news seems nearly insatiable. At the same time, consumer confusion is rampant in today’s fast-paced, multi-media environment. Whether speaking with other professional colleagues, journalists, or family and friends, food scientists are often tasked with translating scientific findings into lay terms for “public consumption.”

In recent years, scientific evidence has revealed that bioactive dietary components may benefit health in ways that extend beyond meeting basic nutrition. Some components, when consumed often enough and in sufficient quantities, may help reduce risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or obesity. Scientists are equipped with new knowledge and technologies to better identify these functional dietary components, incorporate them into foods and dietary supplements, evaluate their potential health effects, and understand the impact of genetic variances between individuals.

The evolving research into how whole foods, food components, and dietary supplements may promote health and reduce disease risk is creating an increasing fountain of information that flows fast enough to keep the most motivated scientist on his or her toes. However, dietary recommendations from established scientific authorities change little over time because of the need to build a strong, consensus-based body of evidence. This contrast presents challenges to those who strive to responsibly relay new findings to the public.

One of several broad challenges is to convey emerging science on a continuum based on the strength and consistency of the overall evidence, rather than isolated studies. Science evolves as more well-designed studies confirm, add to, or contradict previous findings.

A unique challenge to the “functional foods” discussion is framing beneficial dietary components as one part of a healthful diet and lifestyle rather than as “magic bullets.” It is also a challenge to relay the concept of “caloric displacement,” that when a dietary component is increased in the diet, consumption of other foods may need to be decreased to maintain a healthful weight. Individualization, identifying specific population groups that would likely benefit from the increased or decreased consumption of a given component, should be clearly communicated. Finally, an additional challenge exists in educating the public regarding completely new research or technology, such as “nutrigenomics” or “personalized nutrition,” before the area is fully understood.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, with IFT and other associations, has developed Guidelines for Communicating the Emerging Science of Dietary Components for Health. Food science and nutrition communicators can use these guidelines to translate emerging research findings into understandable and actionable messages for consumers:
1. Enhance public understanding of foods, food components, and/or dietary supplements and their role in a health-ful lifestyle. Serve up plain talk about food and health. Advise consumers that dietary components are not magic bullets that work alone, but may promote good health when included as part of a healthful diet and lifestyle.

2. Clearly convey the differences between emerging and consensus science. Scientific research is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Tell consumers where new findings fall on the research continuum and within the overall body of evidence.

3. Communicate with accuracy and balance. Carefully craft your communications. Advise a healthy skepticism for potentially misleading headlines, such as “medical miracle” or “scientific breakthrough.” Suggest looking beyond dramatic language to get the full story. Explain that facts are facts but experts may differ in opinion about how to interpret them. Present a complete picture of a study’s results, rather than select findings.

4. Put new findings into the context needed for an individual to make dietary decisions. Make your messages meaningful. Translate the latest research into what is on the consumer’s dinner plate. Spell out to whom new findings apply and what impact, if any, the findings should have on eating habits.

5. Disclose all key details about a particular study. Cite the specifics. Discuss the study design (such as characteristics of participants and quantity of food consumed) to help the public understand research results and their validity.

6. Consider peer review status. Point out if a study has been peer reviewed as a key measure of its credibility, although it is not the only key. Peer review is not a guarantee of conclusive results—it is one piece of a larger puzzle made up by the overall body of evidence.

7. Assess the objectivity of research. When assessing a study’s objectivity, consider the full facts—including not only disclosure of funding sources, but also peer review, methodology, and conclusions.

Using these guidelines will increase consumer understanding of the exciting and emerging science of dietary components for health promotion.

Wendy Reinhardt is Associate Director, Health and Nutrition, International Food Information Council, 1100 Connecticut Ave., Suite 430, Washington, DC 20036, [email protected]. More information is available at www.ific.org/nutrition/functional/guidelines/index.cfm.