Is food marketing awash with bad science? If so, who is to blame?

Dr Ben Goldacre: ‘Does this food cause or prevent cancer? Honestly, there's no need for any more stories like that, they have almost no value’

Loading the player...

There was plenty of handwringing at the IFT show this year about the lack of scientific literacy characterizing the debate around food and farming, backed up by scores of press clippings about ‘franken-foods.’ But is the media solely to blame, and what’s the remedy? FoodNavigator-USA editor Elaine Watson caught up with ‘Bad Science’ author Dr Ben Goldacre to find out…

I began by asking him whether it’s fair to pin all the blame on arts graduates in the media unable to grasp ‘scientific’ material and hell bent on turning the most innocuous story into a full-blown food scare, and whether the food industry itself needed to take some responsibility.

While food scientists know we’re all made of ‘chemicals’ and that ‘natural’, ‘local’, or ‘non-GMO’ food is not inherently safer, healthier or more sustainable than ‘mass-produced’ food, this is not what their colleagues in marketing are telling us.  If there is a bandwagon, don’t food marketers have a tendency to jump on it, regardless of the science?

‘When you use pseudoscience as a marketing device, it could backfire later on…’

“Yeah of course,” said Dr Goldacre. “When you use pseudoscience as a marketing device you foster an atmosphere of permissiveness around misuse of scientific evidence, so it’s inevitable that it will come back to bite you on the bum…”

While it is patronizing and dangerous to assume that anyone in a white coat is always right and that consumer anxieties about novel technologies should automatically be dismissed, food companies can’t have it both ways – and just use science when it suits them, he said.

“With each small individual opportunity to misuse science, the temptation is so great that you think well I’ll just do it on this occasion as it will help me sell this one thing, but the cost is borne by the whole of society or at least the whole sector and that’s something that people have to deal with or at least own and take responsibility for.”

(Struggling to view this video? Watch it on YouTube instead.)

Confirmation bias, and TV science debates

Next we discussed confirmation bias, whereby we cite scientific data when it is consistent with our politics/world view, but dismiss it when it isn’t (for example, some people accept the scientific consensus behind climate change but reject the scientific consensus that biotech crops are safe, for example). 

While no one is immune to this, he acknowledged, the media can rarely be relied upon to place things in perspective so that any unconscious biases can be challenged.

In fact, it is fairly standard practice to give the same amount of air time to people on the fringes of a scientific debate as those representing the consensus view based on the totality of the data, in part because an ‘argument’ makes for better television, and in part because reporters don’t have the time or expertise to put the two ‘sides’ in context, he said.  

'It’s a completely ridiculous way to handle scientific discourse'

But should you really give equal weighting to the one guy that says the earth is flat if 7bn other people say it’s round?

 “It’s a completely ridiculous way to handle scientific discourse and you see it in extremis in things like vaccines,” said Dr Goldacre.

“So here’s a perfectly sensible person who will give a faithful account of the evidence and here is a completely crazy person that is going to cherry-pick and tell very emotive stories… and they will both have equal air time and equal weighting.”

Food, cancer risk reduction, and the media…

We ended by talking about food and cancer, and how time-strapped reporters should handle the latest study that says ingredient X could reduce the risk of cancer Y.

According to Dr Goldacre: “Does this foodstuff cause or prevent cancer? Honestly, there is no need for any more stories like that, they are of almost no value.

“These come from studies which are the weakest forms of evidence, generally, they come from observational data that’s hopelessly subjective, confounding and biased and there is almost always a very long history of endless findings that are reciprocally conflicting, so one week coffee causes cancer the next week coffee prevents cancer. Firstly you have to ask whether it is really helpful or informative or useful to write about this at all.”

If you do cover the latest food and cancer study, however, he said, place it in context: “It’s a good test of a researcher to say… can you point me to a systematic review of all the studies that have been done on this question [does ingredient X reduce the risk of cancer Y]… and if they can’t, then they are probably not a good researcher…”

Dr Goldacre is a senior clinical research fellow at the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine in the Department of Primary Care in the University of Oxford, UK, and a Research Fellow in Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. He runs the EBMdataLab in the University of Oxford, building live tools to create and use data more effectively in healthcare and academia, such as OpenPrescribing which has identified hundreds of millions of pounds of cost savings for the NHS, and OpenTrials, the missing index for all clinical trial data and documents.

Read more about Dr Goldacre HERE.

Related News

TerraVia CEO talks algae at IFT: We have disruptive products

TerraVia CEO: Thrive culinary algae oil could be a sizeable consumer brand

Picture: Elaine Watson

IFT 2016 part two: Ingredients and trends to watch

'Made with Pulses' seal unveiled at the IFT show

Global Pulse Confederation unveils 'Made with Pulses' seal at the IFT show

Picture: Elaine Watson

IFT 2016 part one: Bad science, correlation vs causation, and what consumers think clean label means

Comments (1)

Rozalin Kostov - 05 Aug 2016 | 06:50

Dr Ben Goldacre:Does this food cause or prevent cancer

Really, I do not trust Dr. Goldacre.I do really trust the traditional eating patterns and habits and the proven health status of the people who practice them.

05-Aug-2016 at 18:50 GMT

Submit a comment

Your comment has been saved

Post a comment

Please note that any information that you supply is protected by our Privacy and Cookie Policy. Access to all documents and request for further information are available to all users at no costs, In order to provide you with this free service, William Reed Business Media SAS does share your information with companies that have content on this site. When you access a document or request further information from this site, your information maybe shared with the owners of that document or information.