If you take away just one thing from this editorial, let it be to not eat cheese in bed.
By the time you read this, I and my friend and partner in nutrition communications crime, Jim Painter, PhD, will have given our presentation on communicating the science of nutrition at the 2019 Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting and expo.
It’s no surprise that there is a constant flow of nutrition misinformation that washes over the public courtesy of the media as well as via the Internet, from sources both innocent and nefarious. Yet one of the primary drivers of this persistent problem is the perpetuation of bad info and intermittent hysterics that continue to come from people who should know better — those in the field of nutrition.
Unlike most other fields, nutrition science seems to be in a state of perpetual defensive mode when it comes to messaging the public at large. This is because just about everyone feels they are an expert on the topic. “I eat, therefore I know.” This isn’t speculation: The International Food Information Council once did a “person on the street” interview to prove it. Comedian and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel show has done similar, albeit less serious, interviews around GMOs and gluten.
What Jim Painter and I asked attendees at our IFT presentation to do was to take nothing as gospel, and use a “science first” approach to all messaging. In other words, the old tropes that too many nutrition experts have absorbed and swear by — meat is deadly, sugar is poison, salt will kill you and other such “givens” — and do the research before writing the headline. Case in point: Of the hundreds of studies on dietary sodium, there is no definitive proof that the average intake of salt leads to hypertension in healthy people. (The average daily salt intake in the US, by the way, is about 6,000-8,000mg.)
Many nutrition studies rely on correlations between intake of a given ingredient and the increase in incidence of disease or dysfunction. But jumping to conclusions from a correlation is bad science. Correlations are not necessarily indicative of causation. As the graph above demonstrates, from 2000 to 2009, as cheese consumption in the US rose, death by entanglement in the bedsheets rose accordingly. (And no, all that cheese was not consumed in bed.)
For processors, the take-away is this: If an ingredient in your product is targeted by the army of volunteer nutrition police, yet good science proves it to be safe and wholesome, invest in education, not reformulation.