Is food marketing awash with bad science? If so, who is to blame?

Dr Ben Goldacre: ‘Does this food cause or prevent cancer? Honestly, there's no need for any more stories like that, they have almost no value’

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Scientific method

There was plenty of handwringing at the IFT show this year about the lack of scientific literacy characterizing the debate around food and farming, backed up by scores of press clippings about ‘franken-foods.’ But is the media solely to blame, and what’s the remedy? FoodNavigator-USA editor Elaine Watson caught up with ‘Bad Science’ author Dr Ben Goldacre to find out…

I began by asking him whether it’s fair to pin all the blame on arts graduates in the media unable to grasp ‘scientific’ material and hell bent on turning the most innocuous story into a full-blown food scare, and whether the food industry itself needed to take some responsibility.

While food scientists know we’re all made of ‘chemicals’ and that ‘natural’, ‘local’, or ‘non-GMO’ food is not inherently safer, healthier or more sustainable than ‘mass-produced’ food, this is not what their colleagues in marketing are telling us.  If there is a bandwagon, don’t food marketers have a tendency to jump on it, regardless of the science?

‘When you use pseudoscience as a marketing device, it could backfire later on…’

“Yeah of course​,” said Dr Goldacre​. “When you use pseudoscience as a marketing device you foster an atmosphere of permissiveness around misuse of scientific evidence, so it’s inevitable that it will come back to bite you on the bum…”

While it is patronizing and dangerous to assume that anyone in a white coat is always right and that consumer anxieties about novel technologies should automatically be dismissed, food companies can’t have it both ways – and just use science when it suits them, he said.

“With each small individual opportunity to misuse science, the temptation is so great that you think well I’ll just do it on this occasion as it will help me sell this one thing, but the cost is borne by the whole of society or at least the whole sector and that’s something that people have to deal with or at least own and take responsibility for.”

(Struggling to view this video? Watch it on YouTube instead.​)

Confirmation bias, and TV science debates

Next we discussed confirmation bias, whereby we cite scientific data when it is consistent with our politics/world view, but dismiss it when it isn’t (for example, some people accept the scientific consensus behind climate change but reject the scientific consensus that biotech crops are safe, for example). 

While no one is immune to this, he acknowledged, the media can rarely be relied upon to place things in perspective so that any unconscious biases can be challenged.

In fact, it is fairly standard practice to give the same amount of air time to people on the fringes of a scientific debate as those representing the consensus view based on the totality of the data, in part because an ‘argument’ makes for better television, and in part because reporters don’t have the time or expertise to put the two ‘sides’ in context, he said.  

'It’s a completely ridiculous way to handle scientific discourse'

But should you really give equal weighting to the one guy that says the earth is flat if 7bn other people say it’s round?

 “It’s a completely ridiculous way to handle scientific discourse and you see it in extremis in things like vaccines,” ​said Dr Goldacre.

“So here’s a perfectly sensible person who will give a faithful account of the evidence and here is a completely crazy person that is going to cherry-pick and tell very emotive stories… and they will both have equal air time and equal weighting.”

Food, cancer risk reduction, and the media…

We ended by talking about food and cancer, and how time-strapped reporters should handle the latest study that says ingredient X could reduce the risk of cancer Y.

According to Dr Goldacre: “Does this foodstuff cause or prevent cancer?Honestly, there is no need for any more stories like that, they are of almost no value.

“These come from studies which are the weakest forms of evidence, generally, they come from observational data that’s hopelessly subjective, confounding and biased and there is almost always a very long history of endless findings that are reciprocally conflicting, so one week coffee causes cancer the next week coffee prevents cancer. Firstly you have to ask whether it is really helpful or informative or useful to write about this at all.”

If you do cover the latest food and cancer study, however, he said, place it in context: “It’s a good test of a researcher to say… can you point me to a systematic review of all the studies that have been done on this question ​[does ingredient X reduce the risk of cancer Y]… and if they can’t, then they are probably not a good researcher…”

Dr Goldacre is a senior clinical research fellow at the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine in the Department of Primary Care in the University of Oxford, UK, and a Research Fellow in Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. He runs the EBMdataLab​ ​in the University of Oxford, building live tools to create and use data more effectively in healthcare and academia, such as OpenPrescribing​ which has identified hundreds of millions of pounds of cost savings for the NHS, and OpenTrials​, the missing index for all clinical trial data and documents.

Read more about Dr Goldacre HERE​.

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