Increasingly it appears to be the case that there are two types of public-health publications pertaining to food. There is bad research. And then there is bad reporting on bad research.
Instances of the former are too numerous to list here. Suffice to say that last year I blogged at Hit & Run about a study that claims the very notion that we choose what we eat is a mere illusion. More recently, I noted in a column for Reason that I couldn’t find much to a study by Kansas researchers that appears to claim the mere existence of food logos is somehow contributing to childhood obesity.
Instances of the latter—the seemingly rote regurgitation by journalists of sketchy research, often coupled with brainless quotes from a small sample of go-to researchers—are no less common.
A widely circulated recent Associated Press article on the purported dangers of Monster Energy drink, for example, claims a 24-ounce can of Monster “contains 240 milligrams of caffeine, or seven times the amount of the caffeine in a 12-ounce cola.” That’s true, according to data provided by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and others.
The AP article also notes the FDA limits the amount of added caffeine in cola drinks to 0.02 percent. That’s also true. But the limit only applies to caffeine added directly to “cola-type beverages”—a definition that excludes both non-cola-type drinks like Mountain Dew and substances containing caffeine (like guarana or coffee) that are added to any drinks (whether cola-type or not).
These important distinctions are lost on Forbes columnist Melanie Haiken, who writes that
FDA does not allow soda to have more than 0.02 percent caffeine….
A 24-ounce can of Monster Energy Drink supposedly has 240 mg of caffeine, approximately equivalent to seven cups of coffee.
No (cola, not soda) and no (soda, not coffee).
Nevertheless, Haiken concludes her one-sided piece, “Can Energy Drinks Kill? The FDA Investigates, Consumers Worry, A Business Under Fire,” with a call to restrict the marketing of all energy drinks.
Another recent example of underwhelming public-health journalism comes from USA Today’s Nanci Hellmich in a piece largely focused on a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation publication that claims changes in school nutrition over the last few years may have brought us to “the turning point” in combating childhood obesity.
Hellmich then notes “[t]he gains are pretty small in some communities”—as if perhaps they’re large in others.
While Hellmich cites a few examples, I wanted to see the research for myself. Yet I found one immediate difficulty with Hellmich’s article: She doesn’t name the RWJF publication or note when or where it was published.
Fifteen minutes of searching later I found what I believe is the publication—an “issue brief”—after scrolling through several pages of RWJF’s website.
Its title? “Declining Childhood Obesity Rates—Where Are We Seeing the Most Progress?”