Science and journalism have a delicate relationship. Science needs its message to disseminate through the public; journalists need news to disseminate. But like a group of children playing telephone, the message can become distorted. Mistakes are inevitable because research is messy. This quintessentially human endeavor is a lengthy and ongoing process that takes time to smooth out mistakes and biases. At best, these mistakes fizzle from the news circuit. At worst, they can harm public health.
Nutrition is a case in point. Among fad diets and shockumentaries lies a scientific field that exemplifies this ongoing pursuit of knowledge. As our diets have become our greatest source of illness worldwide , understanding how to approach news headlines and new research articles with proper scientific rigor is increasingly important.
Butter is Back!
“A new study confirms what we already knew,” is not an eye-catching headline. Studies that challenge the status quo, on the other hand, garner quite a few clicks. So when a meta-analysis—a study that combines the data from several studies—was published by Chowdhury et al. in 2014  exonerating saturated fats from the American Heart Association (AHA) and USDA’s list of taboo nutrients, the headlines began to roll.
“Butter is back” was joyfully sung from the New York Times to the cover of TIME magazine. This, indeed, was big news. The conclusion that saturated fats are not linked to cardiovascular disease lies flat in the face of decades of scientific and medical consensus . How does one reconcile the confusion? Well, in the immortal words of Carl Sagan:
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
One look at the concerns raised among the community of nutrition researchers (which, by the way, is as close as you’ll come to an academic fistfight) revealed that this study was far from conclusive, let alone a revelation that we had all been, according to the New York Times Op-Ed piece , “brainwashed” into believing saturated fats were bad.
The cycle continued yet again after the publication of a Presidential Advisory from the AHA and the American College of Cardiology  stirred the pot when it condemned coconut oil (consisting of roughly 90% saturated fat). Thus, the public’s confusion persists.
Blame the Researchers?
Absent fraud, researchers should rarely be blamed for producing conflicting results. In fact, presenting new data that challenge mainstream belief is essential to the scientific process. However, there are cases where researchers overstate their claims which can result in the hysteria the press sometimes bestow to a single publication. As Chowdhury concludes in his abstract, “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats” . Without free access to the paper’s details and brushing over the extensive research in the field that claims the contrary, it’s no wonder some reports misrepresented its impact. Researchers from the Institute of Nutrition and Department of Medicine from Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany retorted,
“The results of the meta-analysis gave rise to misleading headlines like ‘Animal fat is not bad for the heart’ in the national lay press…Due to the impact of meta-analyses on the general public, thoroughly and reasonable selection of studies and careful evaluation of data are vital for the accuracy of results and for protecting people from harm.”
These simplified messages that can often be distorted in the lay press can lead consumers to continue poor dietary habits.
So Should We Blame the Journalists?
Journalists, too, cannot take full blame. Part of their mandate is to report and contextualize new scientific findings for the public. And what journalist could resist a study that contradicts long-standing views and enables guilt-free consumption of tasty fats?
But just like researchers, there are times where journalists may rush publication without proper due diligence. Journalists need to remember that one study - even a meta-analysis - is not gospel. Along with their own potential to make errors in reporting, they are also limited by the quality of the studies they are analyzing.
Science journalists, especially those focused on nutrition and health policy, should approach topics with a potential impact on public health delicately. Another critique of the meta-analysis from the International Expert Movement to Improve Dietary Fat Quality highlights the negative impact on public health that arises from the “uncritical fanfare” a single article like this can produce through the public’s increased confusion and skepticism of dietary health guidelines.
Other times, journalists simply may not be doing their homework. A meta-analysis published a year later by de Souza, et al. , doing similar work, came to similar conclusions as Chowdury about the impact of saturated fats. But De Souza himself told The Independent that we should not ignore stronger and consistent evidence from better designed studies that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats or whole grains reduces the chance of developing or dying from heart disease. But that didn’t stop other headlines from glossing over the details. Newsweek’s “Fat Chance: Saturated Fats Have No Link To Heart Disease,” and London Time’s “Welcome Back to Butter on Toast” leave little room for subtlety. As Dr. Robert Ostfeld, director of the Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore Medical Center remarked,
“Indeed, the authors of this very study state that if you replace saturated fat with plant-based foods, people do better. Perhaps that should be the headline.”
How have these meta-analyses come to these conclusions, then? As De Souza alluded to and Zong, et al. explains , “When saturated fat (SFA) was replaced by polyunsaturated fat, lower risk of coronary heart disease has been observed in large scale prospective studies and intervention studies.” In other words, the calories used to replace saturated fats matter. Substituting saturated fats with sugar and other refined carbohydrates won’t improve your dietary health.
First, we should ask if there’s even a problem. A recent study showed major news stories are shared nearly 60% of the time without ever being read , driving culture and public discourse. As any marketer will tell you, headlines matter. Incidentally, a USDA report shows butter consumption in America jumped by over 10% last year. If that increase comes at the expense of polyunsaturated fats or other healthy foods, our risk of cardiovascular disease, the number one killer in America, will rise.
At least, that’s the consensus.
And therein lies the difficulty of conveying scientific progress. Balancing the consensus with the realization of its fallibility can be a tricky dance. And neither journalists, readers, nor scientists are spared from the mental heuristics that can lead to problems like confirmation bias.
Nutrition research is critical to public health, but the public can perceive it as contradictory and confusing. It’s a challenging field, and the media isn’t doing it any favors. For the public faced with controversial headlines about nutrition, the most prudent advice is to identify and adhere to the scientific and medical consensus. As for the researchers and the journalists: recognize the impact your work may have on public health, stick to the truth, and fight the urge to sugarcoat it.
Brian Bender (@BFBender)
Guest Contributor, Signal to Noise Magazine
Brian Bender, PhD earned his doctorate in bioengineering from UCLA. As a certified nutritionist and cofounder of Intake, he is currently developing products and services designed to bring better data to the world of nutritional health with the goal of reducing poor dietary habits. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
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