Jeannie Houchins

Food safety. Food recalls. Obesity. Toxic chemicals. High sodium. The soda tax. Calorie counts. High fructose corn syrup. Food rules.

Feature any of these topics in a headline or news lead-in, and consumers are likely to respond in fear—their eyes or ears drawn to the online, print, or broadcast story created to allow media companies to generate income. Is it right? Not necessarily, but it’s business, and, indeed, the media is a fickle beast.

Members of the media regularly churn out extremist, polarizing, and sensationalistic stories that are in touch with human nature’s proclivity to gravitate toward the negative. Recently, three stories have resonated with me as examples of irresponsible media reporting.

One of Oprah’s progenies, Mehmet Oz, M.D., now has his own show. He doles out reasonable health and wellness information and, given his physician credibility, he has a large audience that follows him as devoutly as Oprah. An episode of “The Dr. Oz Show” recently focused on three dangerous food toxins—pesticides, mercury, and Bisphenol A.

The teasers for this program were alarming to say the least, using language that led the viewers to believe they were going to die at the dinner table. To further humanize the story, the guests featured on the show were afflicted with conditions attributed to consuming foods tainted with these chemicals. Was there a food scientist on hand to educate? No, unfortunately, the producers opted to forgo a food expert on a story that clearly warranted one.

My second observation concerns Prevention magazine, which is a well read and trusted publication for consumers. Included in the publication’s columns and feature stories are practical tips to improve one’s health. Unfortunately, recently this magazine fell under the same business model as all the others in which driving consumer purchases is more meaningful than communicating accurate health information. The headline that grabbed my attention was “7 Foods That Should Never Cross Your Lips.” With a title like that, how can a consumer not pick up and read that story? All of the foods listed in the article—salmon, canned tomatoes, apples, milk, potatoes, popcorn, and beef—are common products found in every home, but their mention in Prevention is enough to make gatekeepers rethink their shopping lists. Of course, an educated consumer is the best consumer, but is it constructive to scare consumers into an education?

My last example is about the latest on bagged salad and its cleanliness. Reading a headline titled “Bagged Salad: How Clean Are Packaged Salads?” would certainly pique anyone’s attention since bagged salads are an easy way to boost nutrition and likely one of the most common foods in a shopping cart. While the tips at the end of the article were practical, the authors didn’t once seek out a food scientist for comments or refer the reader to a science-backed Web site for additional information.

What’s a food scientist to do in this age of sensationalism? There are ways to get involved, even if you’re not keen on communicating publicly. Yes, social media come to mind first as tools for disseminating accurate information, but going the low-tech route is just as effective. When the Portland Press Herald ran an editorial article that claimed the current food landscape was poisoning the nation, Bruce Stillings, a member of the IFT Board of Directors, decided that he wasn’t going to sit back as his local paper took a one-sided, inaccurate swipe at the U.S. food system. He took the time and the initiative to write a letter to the editor that was compelling enough that it ran the next day online. Needless to say, he was pleased to see his efforts to provide a food science voice in action pay off. Stillings fought back by writing back. If one IFT member can do this, you can too.

If a show inaccurately reports on food science, find the news station’s producer and send an e-mail. Reporters and producers often receive viewer feedback and, ideally, it will help them with future programming. If you read erroneous information online, post a correction in the comment section. People do read the comments as does the author.

We can’t let the media continue to do a disservice to the public by serving up scare tactics and misinformation. It hurts the public and the food science profession. Every small contribution to accuracy helps. Think of yourselves as food science evangelists, and begin making a difference.

by Jeannie Houchins, R.D.,
Director of Media Relations
[email protected]