Public Health

The Sorry State of Food-Related Public-Health Research and Journalism

Bad research. Bad reporting on bad research. What's the deal with food-related public-health research and reporting?


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?"

One of the four key pieces of data supporting RWJF's claim of states and cities demonstrating "the most progress" comes from California. In that case, one set of students in three different grades in 2005 was 38.44 percent obese and/or overweight. In 2010, a different set of students in the same three grades was 38 percent obese and/or overweight. For those keeping score, that's a decrease of 1.1 percent in the obese/overweight levels of a completely different set of students over five years.

On top of that fact, the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, the group that carried out the research with UCLA thanks to a grant from RWJF, also notes in a post announcing the 1.1 percent figure that "the majority of counties in the state [are] still registering increases in obesity rates among school-age children."

And remember, this is one of the states and cities RWJF is touting as having made "the most progress"! (Emphasis mine.)

Even some who one might expect to latch onto the data in the USA Today and Forbes pieces are openly skeptical.

"Sadly, it's not uncommon to see sloppy journalism on important scientific matters," says Michele Simon, a public health lawyer who advocates in favor of regulating the food and alcohol industries, in an email to me.

"Such misinformation can do a lot of damage to advocates pushing for policy change. We all need reliable science to accurately inform the public and policymakers. Journalists can and should do a better job. And advocates should also do their own homework and be careful not to amplify bad science."

In spite of the current crop of mediocre research and reporting, there are a few bright counterweights.

Take Professor Jayson Lusk of Oklahoma State University, who I interviewed for Reason earlier this year.

Lusk had just published a study in the journal Food Policy, "The Political Ideology of Food," in which he concluded that the great majority of Americans support increasing the extent to which food is regulated. 

Lusk, whose forthcoming book is The Food Police: A Well Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate, admitted he found his results "a bit disheartening" but published them anyways.

Me? I hate the results (and challenged him on his data in my interview).

But I love the fact Lusk displayed the intellectual honesty and courage to publish research that doesn't simply reflect his own values and wishes.

For this alone, Lusk deserves a medal. But he's on a very short list.

One who might agree with that assessment and that of Michele Simon is noted NBC News chief science and medical correspondent Robert Bazell, who recently used a Harvard University teaching hospital's blatant overreach in pushing "weak" research on the sweetener aspartame to remind  everyone—from scientists to the media and consumers—of the perils of pushing bad science.

"Not all science deserves publicity," writes Bazell. "Some is not done well."

Bravo. And the same can be said of science journalism—especially when it comes to so much public-health research in the area of food.

NEXT: Obama and Romney Tied in Reuters/Ipsos Poll

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  1. “Can Energy Drinks Kill? The FDA Investigates, Consumers Worry, A Business Under Pants on Fire,”


  2. Without the FDA, lifespans would halve, and little preschoolers would start dying in their thousands.

    Thank God we have czars to determine what we can and cannot eat!

    1. I find it miraculous on a loaves-and-fishes scale that the only people 100% immune from the insidious effects of food marketing are employed as elected representatives and their bureaucratic functionaries. It’s as if they float above us unwashed, untutored and benighted masses like perfect angels, watching over us like shepherds.

      1. Wherefore we shalt kneel in penance and servitude to the guidesmen of Yahweh, as they guide the mortal men to salvation.

        1. The purifying fire of electoral politics will bring about Heaven on Earth. Amen

          1. And as the Ebony Messiah ascends once more unto the Iron Throne of Terra, free birth control for Sandra Fluke shall commence, and all shall be well, and all shall be well.

            1. I find myself cheered at the thought of a future devoid of Flukettes and their perpetual demands upon others.

              1. The joke’s you guys: Sandra (appropriately named) Fluke was thought to reproduce by budding but there is evidence that she can reproduce hermaphroditically.

                1. I thought she was simple enough to allow division, much like a monocellular organism.

                  1. Don’t be ridiculous. Everyone knows that only Justin Beiber reproduces by budding. It explains all his fanbase.

                    Besides, her surname is “Fluke”, not “Planarian”.

              2. “on”. Dammit.

  3. We need food leadership. Thank god Michelle Obama is ready to tell us how and what we should eat. We are helpless without guidance from our betters.

    If you people had your way, we’d all be fat, cancer-ridden, and dead before puberty. Spend a minute every single day thanking God for blessing us with such wise leaders. If Romney wins, we’ll have to live on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, KFC, and Red Lobster.

    1. … and we’ll be forced to shop at… *GULP*… WALMART!

      1. And watch TRAKTER PULLZZZ!

        1. And there won’t be a prohibition on… yuck. GUUUUNS

          1. Well, we can’t have you shooting things for food instead of buying from regulated, approved providers, otherwise how can we regulate it?

            1. The Department of Walmart?

              1. I dunno. How much did they contribute to the re-election of Bringer of Light?

    2. we’ll have to live on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, KFC, and Red Lobster

      We’re going to become Canadian?!? No way, eh?!?

      1. That’s a-boat as racist as you can get, bruh.

      2. It is pronounced Kraft Dinner. Say it right.

        1. If I didn’t have puke breath, I’d kiss you.

          1. Why the fuck do you care if you have puke breath?

      3. A real Canadian wannabe would not have left out Tim Horton’s donuts.

  4. 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.

    As someone who’s spent some time calling bullshit on MM articles on diet and nutrition I’m familiar with their reticence to cite sources or show any sort of accountability. A meta-study was done, we journalists are being spoon-fed the blurb, and we are going to spoon-feed it to the general public. Can’t be bothered to link to the actual study because it’s way too sciencey and stuff. I mean, if a journalist with a degree in journalism has difficulty understanding it, it’s obviously way beyond the grasp of you proles reading the article.

    1. Can’t be bothered to link to the actual study because it’s way too sciencey and stuff.

      Much less cast a slightly critical eye or ask some objective questions of a researcher who has a huge incentive to spin their research in a positive manner.

  5. Professional fuckstick Colbert King is a professional fuckstick:

    Tuesday’s presidential election is one of the most important political events to affect racial progress in America since the 1964 contest between Sen. Barry Goldwater and President Lyndon Johnson.

    Fortunately, the much-feared Goldwater victory never came to pass. But in ’64, there was plenty of praying among people of good will.

    Widely regarded as a founder of the modern conservative movement, Goldwater entered the presidential race as an outspoken defender of “states rights” and a fierce opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

    Goldwater’s anti-civil-rights stance earned him the support of Deep South states, making him the first Republican since Reconstruction to carry Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana.

    Operating with a well-earned inner sense of peril, African Americans voted overwhelmingly against Goldwater, helping to hand Johnson a landslide victory. A retreat on progress toward racial equality was averted.

    1. (cont)

      What would be the consequences for race of a Mitt Romney victory?

      A Romney takeover of the White House might well rival Andrew Johnson’s ascendancy to the presidency after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.

      Let’s dispense with something right now. I am not asserting that, in the unlikely event President Obama loses, the result could be chalked up to his being black.

      Yes, race still matters in America, as Romney surrogate John Sununu recently reminded us with his slur regarding Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama.

      A Romney win would be worrisome, however, because of his strong embrace of states rights and his deep mistrust of the federal government ? sentiments Andrew Johnson shared.

      And we know what that Johnson did once in office.

      His sympathy for Confederacy holdouts, and his distaste for Washington, led him to retreat from Reconstruction and avert his gaze as Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws, many of which lasted until the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

      Democrat supporters: race baiting since fucking forever.

      Because remember, supporting “states rights” is the same as supporting Jim Crow.

      Fuck Colbert King with a hot poker.

      1. The ignorance is fucking nuclear. He doesn’t seem to know shit about shit, especially Goldwater.

        Race-mongers, class-warfare-instigators, and slavemakers.

        Great things to be.

      2. How stupid do you have to be to think there is any comparison between Goldwater and Romney. The idiocy of these people is just fucking amazing. Honestly, what the hell does a liberal have to be afraid of in a Romney Presidency? The government might only grow at 5% a year rather than 15%?

        1. Didn’t you read, John. If Romney is elected, we’re on a sure track back to Jim Crow.

          1. How pathetic of an existence it must be to convince yourself of that bullshit every day.

            1. You know your life is fucked up when your primary job is to stir shit thoroughly, and do it with a smile.

              This guy’s face is so fucking punchable. I was having a decent day until I read this race baiting knob-gobbler call me a fucking racist. Again.

              Seriously, I’m getting goddamn sick and fucking tired of being called a fucking racist because I dare disagree with Team BLUE.

              1. They are working to use Obama to pretty much destroy race relations in this country. When they say stupid shit like this all they are doing is convincing black people that white people hate them. I never believed for a moment that electing Obma would help race relations. These people want race relations to be horrible. If race relations ever improve black people might start asking why they are constantly getting screwed by the Democratic Party. And we can’t have that.

                1. I’m starting to agree. People like King MUST convince blacks that Whites hate them. It’s the only way that he and the policies he espouses can be relevant.

                  If whites don’t hate blacks, what’s a fuckstick muckraker like King to do? So he takes it upon himself to do the work of convincing blacks that if we dare elect a guy like Romney, blacks might as well just return to the cotton fields.

                  He is what’s wrong with our political discourse, yet I’d bet that he would freely blame the Super PACs for all of the bile and negativity.

          2. Think of all the jobs that will be created by returning to environmentally sustainable manual cotton harvesting.

            Mitt Romney has a plan.

            1. Environmentally sustainable manual cotton harvesting.


            2. Not to mention ending unemployment among black youth!

              1. If we can require some people with MDs to work for us for free upon demand in medicine, why can’t we force others to work for us for free in agriculture?

      3. Three words for Colbert King:




        1. SHHH!

          The meme is that states rights = RACISM!!!!!!11!!!

          And don’t you forget it.

      4. I remember the AUH2O election. “They told me if I voted for Goldwater we’d end up fighting a war in Vietnam. Well, I did, and it turns out they were right.”

  6. The problem goes beyond just science on food and nutrition. Here we are 20 years after the cold fusion debacle and science journalists still have a fundamental lack of understanding of the scientific method. An experiment is performed and data is collected and analyzed. The researcher then comes up with a hypothesis based upon that data and journalists treat that hypothesis as if it’s an established theory. It doesn’t help when the scientist behaves as if his hypothesis is an established scientific fact. Michael Mann is a perfect example of that behavior.

    1. Missing a step:

      The hypothesis needs to be based on sound reasoning from currently accepted theories and working hypotheses. Those previous theories and working hypotheses should have their own experimental support.

      I bring this up because it’s the first thing wrong with a lot of junk research. They’re building castles in the air by trying to experimentally test ill-defined hypotheses not grounded in previous work.

  7. Everybody here needs to read H. L. Mencken’s NEWSPAPER DAYS (hell, read as much Mencken as you can find). Senseless Crusades have been part and parcel of Newspaper writing since forever. The only difference between now and the 19th Century is the number of times the Authority referred to in support of the Crusade is a ‘scientist’ instead of an ‘expert’ in theology. Of course the difference between a Crusading ‘Scientist’ and a crusading ‘minister’ is not detectable from any distance.

    Relax; the news media is and always has been full of high grade fertilizer. It ain’t gonna change anytime soon.

  8. Thats what I am talking about man, WOw.

  9. One of the things I have learned in 20 years of teaching college probability and statistics is that most physicians and public health types are just as ignorant of actual statistics as my intro students. What they *can* do is collect various sorts of data (without distinguishing among types), feed it into sophisticated software packages, and publish whatever pops up with p

    1. Harrumph on that, Spartacus.

      In particular, the sin of representing weak correlation as causation is the most common scare journalism tactic. The Scare-fucks use junk science articles done by hack PhD’s whose work is often funded by left-wing luddite maggot organizations. The junknuts eggheads willfully publish scare correlations with low R values, often less than 0.5 (perfect correlation = 1), and low sample sizes (resulting in low confidence interval, say less than 95%).

      A good reference on this is “Junk Science” by Stephen Milloy.

      It’s good to loaf on the journalists who write scare pieces, but I think maybe more effectively, we need science reform, ie, any scientist who’s on the ppublic dole needs to be held to a no-junk standard. Any Dr. Hack Bungcrack that publishes a low correlation scare study should have public money instantly suspended and his butt-ugly mug posted on a wall of shame so we can rain hot on it for a year of public humiliation. A second violation is a stripping of credentials.

      BOTTOM LINE: Junk science should be a criminal offense.

      1. “…we need science reform, ie, any scientist who’s on the ppublic dole needs to be held to a no-junk standard.”

        That simply isn’t going to happen when politicians are involved. The way to reform science is to remove the government from the equation altogether. That isn’t going to destroy “junk science” totally (because causehead “studies” will always find a source of funding), but it will at least remove the stamp of government approval (and therefore implied legitimacy) from the endeavor. Not to mention saving us shekels.

  10. It’s like listening to a story heard half of the back, but I do not want to know that people are not able to carry below. In addition, Mr. Wu was the second conversion is also very intriguing.

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