Understanding the Scientific Studies Behind Nutrition Myths

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Misconceptions of Science

By Don Lincoln, Ph.D., University of Notre Dame

One day, coffee is a death drink, a week later, it is supposed to cure cancer. No wonder we are overwhelmed by decisions about what to eat and how to stay healthy in this age of information overload. Read on to find out how the nutrition myths perpetuate into the collective consciousness of the general public and the basis for their scientific studies.

A scientist working on a graph next to a selection of fresh food.
People are naturally interested in health and well-being, and health research is provided with ample funding. (Image: metamorworks/shutterstock)

Glancing through health magazines, scrolling through the web, and talking to acquaintances exposes people to a plethora of nutrition myths. This confusion is driven by the wide range of goals of different people. Scientific studies, researchers, and the media are all guilty of spreading misconceptions about nutrition. The entire metabolism industry is deluged with scientific studies that can be confusing. One study publishes a report that says that wine is bad and, the next day, there is another report that says it is good.

Learn more about what the world gets wrong about science.

Reasons for the Deluge in Nutrition Myths

The fact that humans generally want to look great and be healthy is one of the drivers for the information and misinformation deluge on nutrition. In addition, the state also considers public health of the utmost importance and ensures that health research is provided with ample funding.

The National Institutes of Health in the United States, the largest biomedical research institution in the world, invests about USD 37.3 billion in medical research. It disburses more than 80% of the funding through almost 50,000 grants to more than 300,000 researchers. Assuming that each group would have around 10 researchers and that they publish a paper or two every year, there would be 30,000 groups and around 50,000 publications per year. All these publications are certainly not going to be on nutrition. Going by very conservative estimates, suppose 6% of these are on nutrition, this would work out to about 3,000 nutrition publications per year or roughly, 10 publications a day. Though this number is a broad guess, it gives an idea of the amount of information at our disposal. And, obviously, not all of these publications are going to be accurate, resulting in the widespread misconceptions about nutrition.

Learn more about how statistics can lie to you.

Ways the Misinformation Perpetuates

In several disciplines associated with human research, the usual standard for the assertion of studies is a 95% confidence limit. This means that incorrect measurements can happen only 5% of the time. However, in reality, weird things do happen and it is possible that a test group may look different from the control group purely by accident. In effect, if something you are testing happens by accident more than 5% of the time, researchers conclude it as a significant result. So, when there is no real effect at all, scientific studies would claim a health risk or benefit associated with certain foods. Given the publication bias, these studies that claim to have a health risk or benefit are more likely to be published than the ones with null results, making way for the nutrition myths to creep in.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Misconceptions of Science. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Diverse Objectives of the Stakeholders

While there is little doubt about the benefits of scientific studies and their role in saving millions of lives, the essence of these studies is sometimes lost due to the different aspirations of various stakeholders. Sometimes, the approach of the scientific research itself is faulty, and often the way it is construed by the media is misleading. Hence, by the time it enters the collective consciousness of the general public the essence of the study is completely distorted.

The role of each of the stakeholders in conveying the results of these studies will help get a better understanding of how the facts can be distorted. The first being the scientist or the researcher. A scientist exercises an enormous amount of caution when publishing a research paper as he does not want to be proved wrong and may fear an intellectual backlash. Hence, scientific publications come with riders, cautions, qualifiers, mentions of special cases, and so on. On the other hand, a science journalist writing for reputed science journals is on a different mission. His goal is to communicate a broader picture and the significance of the publication. He has a technical background and his audience also possess a certain amount of scientific knowledge. Hence, although not completely, he retains a certain number of cautionary statements and nuances. Now, if this publication catches the attention of bigger media outlets or the traditional print media, the essence of the publication is diluted further as these media houses cater to a very broad and non-scientific audience. Thus, a scientific publication loses its message by the time it reaches the common man.

An advertisement for Immunity-boosting foods showing colourful fruits and vegetables.
People generally want to look great and feel healthy. However, advertising campaigns may lead to distorted information and the dissemination of nutritional myths. (Image: Tatjana Baibakova/Shutterstock)

An illustration would help get a perspective on how the essence of a medical study is lost. In 2014, media outlets were abuzz with the news: “Scientists say sniffing farts could prevent cancer.” Though no such claims were made by the scientists, a press release from the University of Exeter titled “Rotten egg gas holds key to healthcare therapies” prompted the media houses to extrapolate such an interpretation. The actual scientific publication had nothing to do with sniffing or preventing cancer but was about the synthesis and functional evaluation of a mitochondria-targeted hydrogen sulfide donor. The marketing agencies, which have little sense for nuances, would turn the news into ‘farts prevent cancer’. And this would probably end up as advertising campaigns for the bean and cabbage industry. This unseemly alliance between science, the media, and advertisers also leads to distorted information and the dissemination of nutritional myths.

It would, therefore, be prudent to conclude that a single measurement advertising a health risk or benefit is often unreliable. It is better to depend on results confirmed through multiple trials and the ones which take sufficient time to establish outcomes. So, it is in the interest of the reader to exercise caution while reading a medical story on the mass media as some of them lack professional scientific insight.

Learn more about myths about genetics.

Common Questions About the Scientific Studies Behind Nutrition Myths

Q: What is a scientific misconception?

A misconception is an erroneous idea based on an incorrect understanding. A scientific misconception is an opinion that has no scientific facts to support it.

Q: How does publication bias result in misconceptions about nutrition?

Every researcher wants to establish positive and compelling outcomes as the journals are not interested in publishing null results. The researchers also receive grants and promotions based on the results of their studies. It is this under-reporting of null results that helps in the dissemination of misinformation on nutrition.

Q: What was misconception with regard to laetrile back in the 1970s?

Laetrile gained popularity in the 1970s when oncologists had limited options for cancer treatment. However, medical studies concluded that laetrile as a cancer cure was completely ineffective. Even when there was no internet back in the 1970s, the misconception with respect to laetrile created frenzy.

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