dispatches from ISA conference 2014

Simplicity, not science, rules sweetener coverage

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Over-simplistic, negative stories get through to the media and consumers when it comes to sweeteners, according to members of a panel discussion in Brussels.
Over-simplistic, negative stories get through to the media and consumers when it comes to sweeteners, according to members of a panel discussion in Brussels.

Related tags Mass media European food safety authority

The average consumer’s desire for simplicity and the average journalist’s desire for a good headline is driving public perception of sweeteners, according to participants of a debate in Brussels.

Speaking with FoodNavigator after the debate at the International Sweeteners Association (ISA) Conference in Brussels, Professor Jason Halford, an obesity expert from the University of Liverpool, agreed with the speakers saying often it was the 'bad news' that got through to consumers with a disproportionate amount of coverage considering how much of the published body of sweetener science it represented.

Meanwhile behavioural economist Dr Nick Southgate said the simple, scandalised version of events held more appeal than the convoluted science. “That’s partly why scare stories have appeal - because they have a simplicity, that doesn’t always have anything to do with the truth. We have to be judicial in how we use simplicity in communication,”​ he said.

Sweetener safety concerns – ranging from their biodegradability within water supplies to alleged cancer-causing qualities – have been widely circulated in the mainstream press and the blogosphere, despite all marketable artificial sweeteners being approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and other agencies like the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Small incremental steps

One of the debate's speakers, Magali Jacobs, a dietician and psychologist at the Paul Lambin Institute in Belgium, said the industry had to be persistent if it wanted positive news on sweeteners to get through. “Negative information is read much more often than positive information,”​ Jacobs said. “For every 'real' piece of information, they’ve heard ten negative.”

Professor Halford said this environment had meant scientists were sometimes encouraged to overgeneralise their findings when in fact “all science is usually small incremental steps”​.

“It is not often the breakthroughs you see when it is actually reported in the press. They are building incrementally, they’re not sudden, rapid breakthroughs, I’ve seen very few of those in my career,”​ he said.

Press problems

Jacobs said the media had a tremendous capacity to influence consumer thinking on sweeteners, noting 72% of consumers get diet advice from the media, while only 4% take advice from research scientists.

Halford said that articles substantiating public fears surrounding 'artificial' ingredients like sweeteners can be “problematic”​.

“I’m not saying the evidence is 100% one way, or the evidence is a 100% the other way but it may be that there is a large body of evidence supporting the use of sweeteners compared with a smaller body of evidence that questions their use. But obviously when you see it in the press you see a sort of 50/50% because as [Janette Marshall] said they’ve got to give both sides of the story. But it doesn’t necessarily mean both sides of the story have the same amount of scientific evidence supporting them,” he said.

“Perhaps those stories that are more worrisome, that are scarier, get more prominence even though the vast majority of science is contrary to those stories,” he added. 

UK food and health journalist Janette Marshall said tackling this discrepancy could be a case of researchers heeding the call for simplicity by making their work more accessible through blogging and clear press releases. She added that journalists were often under pressure to portray a balanced version of events, but the counter perspective was not necessarily always of sound scientific grounding.

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