FoodPolitik: Sensationalist claims of ‘risk’ only benefit special interests

Photo of Rick Berman
Rick Berman
Executive Director, Center for Union Facts
  • See All Articles
  • Subscribe to RSS
  • Bio

      Rick Berman

      Rick Berman is the President of Berman and Company, a Washington, D.C.–based public affairs firm specializing in research, communications, and creative advertising.
      Berman has founded several leading non-profit organizations which are known for their fact-based research and their aggressive communications campaigns.
      A long-time consumer advocate, Rick Berman champions individual responsibility and common sense policy. He believes that democracies require an informed public from all sides.
      Berman and Company has received dozens of national awards for its creativity and cutting edge work. In the past two years alone Berman and Company has earned over 30 awards for its work in television, print, and radio advertisements and crisis communications.
      Rick Berman has appeared on all major television networks and has organized national coalitions on a variety of issues.

We’ve all heard the media mantra that “sex sells.” So does sensationalism. And it’s abused regularly by agenda-driven groups who want to indoctrinate us with their view that one food or another is harmful and in need of government control.

Consider soda. For years, the nation’s self-anointed food police have said soft drinks are making us fat and should therefore be hit with a punitive tax to discourage consumption (and fund bureaucracy). They’ve further claimed that soft drinks are the leading source of added sugar in kids’ diets — exploiting the especially cynical “do it for the children” angle, as if the idea of parenting doesn’t exist.

It’s curious, then, to read last week that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that soft drink sugars should be far less of a target than other foods.

And we’ve seen this movie before. Instead of waiting to make a considered judgment, activists all too often jump the gun the minute “the latest study” comes out. It’s a well-worn pattern: a study finds a surprising alleged link between a food or beverage and some kind of health problem. The media goes nuts, and it takes years for the science to get hashed out.

(Even the CDC can be guilty — in 2004, it had to revise its claim of obesity-related deaths from an attention-grabbing 400,000 to a figure one-quarter of that after an error in its study’s calculations came to light.)

Take a recent paper lengthily titled “Diet soft drink consumption is associated with an increased risk of vascular events in the Northern Manhattan study.” The authors caution that “further study is warranted,” but the media will merely see the title and have a field day. Happens all the time. Nuance doesn’t sell.

An even better example is with the war of words over salt. The hyperbolic Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has deemed salt a “silent killer.” It’s a main target of New York City’s meddling health czars. And the FDA and other agencies are even considering federal regulations on this simple ingredient.

Their motivation has been the long-standing assumption that because sodium can increase blood pressure and because increased blood pressure can raise the risk of heart disease, then high sodium is therefore linked to the ailment.

But the truth isn’t so simple, as we’re finding out.

A meta-analysis released last fall looked at the data in 167 studies on sodium and discovered that people on a lower-sodium diet had higher cholesterol and triglycerides (fat), which are linked to a higher risk of heart disease. Another review last year determined that even a considerable 50 percent reduction in salt consumption was not associated with a significant decrease in one’s risk of dying of cardiovascular disease.

One issue is what exactly constitutes a diet that’s “high” in sodium. The average American consumes 3.4 grams of sodium a day. Public health activists say we should be consuming, at most, 2.3 grams, and that many Americans should knock this down to 1.5 grams. But one review last year determined that compared to a base range of 4 to 6 grams of sodium per day, eating less than 3 grams is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular mortality.