Opinion

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

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company

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.

Similar examples abound. CSPI defended trans fat in the 1980s, arguing “trans, schmans,” only to reverse itself and lead the crusade against trans fat a few years back.

And remember all the hype over mercury in fish? The FDA issued a 2004 advisory warning pregnant women to limit their consumption of seafood to just 2 serving per week, even of fish lower in mercury (like canned light tuna).

Since then, however, more science has emerged indicating that this advisory, to say nothing of the scare campaigns from environmentalist groups, could be counterproductive. A 2007 piece in The Lancet found that women who ate more seafood had kids with higher IQs and better social development by age 8.

In 2010, more than 100 experts signed an open letter to the FDA requesting it update its mercury/fish advisory due to the new science — and the agency is in the process of doing so.

Whether it’s physics or nutrition, science is by nature a slow and deliberative process — unlike media hype, which loves to focus on drive-by, sensationalist risk claims. That’s to the benefit of special interests, but not always consumers.

Rick Berman is President of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit www.BermanCo.com.