Superfood Pseudoscience

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Every couple of weeks the lifestyle or health section of every major newspaper in the world will feature an article about this month’s latest superfoods – the foods you should be eating as they contain a chemical that fights cancer or melts fat or some other amazing health benefit.

The latest superfood article that is doing the rounds of the world’s major newspapers is about Surprising Superfoods – foods that everyone thinks are  bad for you but actually have good qualities.   My main problem about this article is not that the information is incorrect as I have no way of knowing the factual content of this article because the studies aren’t listed, but because this article offers conflicting information.

Looking at the list of foods that people assume are good for you, but apparently aren’t – we have 6 entries – Tofu, Orange Juice, Apples, Smoothies, Wholemeal bread,  Yoghurt and Sushi.  Of these 6, the major problem with 4 of them (OJ, Apples, Smoothies, Wholemeal bread and Yoghurt) is the amount of sugar contains in these products (most of it naturally occurring by the way).   The article states that even those these foods are packed with vitamins and other essential ingredients for good health, they are very bad for you cause they are high in sugar.  You get the impression that you would be lucky not to slip into a diabetic coma from eating one apple.  Wholemeal bread also gets singled out for not only being “laden” with sugar but the fibre in it is very bad if you are constipated making it an extreme danger food, one would imagine, for the constipated diabetic .

Now after you are done rolling your eyes at the stupidity of labeling food as bad because it contains naturally occurring fructose and glucose, you head over to the good food list.  Topping the list is Jam which they admit in the first three words is  “undeniably high in sugar”, but due to the cancer fighting properties of pectin it is okay to ignore all the added  sugar in this food.   This is my WTF moment about this article.  How can you go on for a whole section about how bad sugar is and why you shouldn’t basically eat fruit high in sugar and then say that it is perfectly fine to eat jam even though it contains lots of added sugar??  Either eating food high in sugar is bad thing regardless of whether that food contains good stuff like vitamins or it is okay to eat food high in sugar because it does contain good stuff – you can’t have it both ways.

Articles on so-called “superfoods” annoy me because they usually focus on one small chemical property contained in the food and claim that it will cure cancer or make you lose weight.  Rarely, if ever, do they actually explain how much of that chemical is in the food and how much of the food you would need to consume to get any cancer fighting or weight loss benefit from it – now that would actually make an interesting article.  Then the next month, the amazing superfood from the previous month is completely forgotten and is replaced by a brand new superfood with an even more amazing health benefit. The best thing to do is to ignore these “superfoods” and just eat a balanced diet containing a wide variety of foods.  However, if you do need an excuse to eat that bar of dark chocolate feel free to assign it a random health benefit as I am sure that there will an article just around the corner proving it.

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6 responses to “Superfood Pseudoscience

  1. Well count me in for a meal of bacon, cheese and coffee. Those are all superfoods, and I’m a fan of all of them.

  2. If you haven’t read it already, you should read the book ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre who writes a column for the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/series/badscience) on this very topic. His coverage of the dubious “chocolate is good for you!” articles that appear without fail every Christmas and Easter has been particularly funny (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/dec/22/healthandwellbeing.foodanddrink)

    The mainstream media is absolutely plagued with terrible articles on medicine, science and nutrition, usually written (and rewritten) by journos with absolutely no knowledge of the science off the back of a dubious PR release or a self-promoting so-called “nutritionist”. I know, because I’m a journalist and my first job out of uni was rewriting and churning out crap like this for a health magazine. I flunked science in high school.

    It’s a shame, because there are plenty of juicy, informative, newsworthy articles to be written on the subject of health, food and nutrition. Like just how inconclusive most nutritional science still is, or how much of what we’re told we should and shouldn’t be eating is influenced by lobby groups and industry interests. But it’s cheaper, easier and more populist to churn out “you’re RIGHT to gorge on jam and chocolate while hating tofu and fruit!” articles over and over again.

    There is some movement towards it happening overseas now with the likes of Michael Pollan and others calling BS on this sort of stuff, but the reality is, your average punter isn’t going to buy a book like “In Defence of Food” and IS going to read these poor excuses for journalism in the Hun “health” section each day.

    • I really want to read Ben’s book. In fact I have to stop procrastinating and just order it from Amazon UK where it is about $6 atm.

      I have also read Pollan’s ‘In Defence of Food’ and you are right, it is a great read – scary at times, but extremely informative.

      So what kind of journalism do you do now? Are you writing about science?

  3. No, politics/media/online journalism.

    If you’re interested in the subject of the MSM’s terrible science reporting and how it got that way, a really good companion book to Bad Science is Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News. It outlines exactly how and why articles like the one you linked to get written.

    In fact, that article is a perfect example of the kind of churnalism he rails against: the original piece (first run in the Telegraph) is just cobbled together from other news stories — for instance, the Wholemeal Bread stuff originated from articles like this: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1228402/Eating-fibre-NOT-good-stomach.html . Get to the end of that article, and you see the line:

    “One way to discover your personal triggers is a new online health diary (ibs-relief.co.uk). It has been developed by Professor Whorwell in conjunction with the manufacturer of IBS medication Buscopan and is launched today.”

    So almost certainly the reason that article got written in the first place, is because Buscopan’s PR people flooded the UK media with press releases on the subject and called up journos to organise interviews with the scientist — or possibly just provided them with the quotes themselves. Time-poor writers are pretty happy when an article shows up virtually written in their inbox.

    The author of the original article at least appears to be an experienced health reporter (http://janefeinmann.com/ – doesn’t mean she has any training in science or medicine, of course). The journalist of the Superfoods one is not: http://harrietalexander.blogspot.com/

    THEN, the SMH has paid to run the story verbatim, because it’s cheap and easy to run wire stories like this.

    It’s like a really bad game of Chinese whispers. I’ll bet you $50 no-one at the Herald fact checked that article before running it, and the same amount that no-one at the Telegraph did either. Although the original author at least appears to have spoken with that scientist directly, did she actually look at the methodology and and outcomes of his studies? And if so, does she understand science and maths well enough to make an objective assessment of their quality and accuracy? And what about the fact that he’s being bankrolled by a pharmaceutical company?

    And that’s one of the more credible claims in the article (it at least mentions that scientist by name)! Where did that stuff about soy come from?

    Bah.

  4. The number one complaint from skeptics, i hear ti over and over again, is that science journalism is absolutely horrible. Can we please have a minor in journalism school that covers exactly how to do science reporting in a way that doesnt completely distort the science?

    Seems to me you could do two things? You do take a red pill and see a video of BriSkepticon or you could take a blue pill and see what happens when a skeptics goes wrong