Daily newspapers are an important source of information about nutrition and health for the general public, and their coverage may have a big part to play in the food choices and health beliefs of their readers.
However the new study, conducted by researchers from Kings College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggests that accuracy and a solid scientific background is being sacrificed for the entertainment element, and a desire for shock or titillating headlines.
The question is particularly pertinent at present, given the upheaval for the healthy foods industry in the wake of the new European health claims regulation. For food firms whose claims have been rejected, media coverage of what data they do have has been suggested as one way to expose consumers to purported benefits of certain foods.
Less than convincing
Benjamin Cooper and colleagues scoured 10 national newspapers for articles containing dietary information over a random week. The top-selling UK papers are made up of a mix of tabloid titles and broadsheets: The Sun, The Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, The Daily Telegraph, Daily Express, Daily Star, The Time, The Guardian, The Independent and the Financial Times.
Once they had identified some 111 dietary heath claims, Cooper et al used two evidence grading scales to characterise the claims made in them, developed by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN).
They found that 72% per cent of the claims run through the WCRF system, and 68% of those run through the SIGN system, had levels of evidence “lower than the convincing or probable categories that are recommended for dietary health claims”, they wrote.
They concluded that the “misreporting of dietary advice by UK newspapers is widespread and may contribute to public misconceptions about food and health”.
They call for moreresearch into the scale of the problem, and suggest that experts could be used to assess the evidence base for each claim while blinded to their source. They also say a longer sampling period could show up annual fluctuations and trends over time, as well as the impact of major news items and any systematic distortions in claims.
In 2008 the UK’s Food Standards Agency reported the results of a survey to consumers perceive the risks associated with various food issues in comparison to the scientific evidence.
When survey participants were asked which person or organisation they would trust the most over aspects of food that may carry a risk, justranked the media as their first, second or third choice.
Health professionals such as doctor were seen to be most trusted, with 81%, followed by friends and family with 48%, independent scientists 42%, and the government 21%.
Supermarkets came out bottom, with just 7%.