Fast Take: When Bad Headlines Overshadow Good Science

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It only took two weeks into 2017 to have splashy, click bait headlines from a new study, generating a swirl of confusion about food.  Even more troubling is the complete disregard of the important findings in Pascual, et al.’s study, published in Nature. 

This study was the first to link a specific marker on human cancer cells (skin, ovarian, bladder, lung, and breast) to metastasis (AKA the spread of cancer).  Let me repeat this again. These researchers identified a way to tell when cancers begin to spread. Think that’s a pretty big deal? You should. It’s probably a big reason why this study was published in one of the most respected scientific journals. Dr. Lara Bennett, science communications manager at Worldwide Cancer Research called these findings “game-changing” and said this research could lead to the development of “treatment that could save thousands of lives each year.”

And yet, the media’s reporting of this study mentions NOTHING about this important discovery. Instead, they focus on the second part of the study, which investigated the link between a specific saturated fatty acid (palmitic acid) and its effect on cancer metastasis in mice. We’ve written before about how the findings from controlled animal studies need to be taken with a (large) grain of salt.

Animal studies are important. They can help establish safety thresholds for specific ingredients, like your favorite low-calorie sweetener, or allow for pilot testing of specific hypotheses. But, this recent round of reporting fails to mention these findings need replication in human studies. It is important to remember that authoritative organizations such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) do not recommend a ban on palm oil or that people stop consuming it.

Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree. It is one of the most used vegetable oils in the world due to it’s unique characteristics, including being a safe replacement for partially hydrogenated oils, which are currently being phased out of the food supply.

Palmitic acid (the main saturated fatty acid used in this study and the primary fatty acid found in palm oil) is listed as an approved food additive by the FDA. It is higher in saturated fat compared to other oils, and saturated fats are a large part of the recent fat discussion and debate. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of your total calories. Additionally, it’s important to focus on the type of fat (more than the amount) in our diet. Try swapping out saturated fats for unsaturated varieties, such as those found in nuts, seeds, avocados, fatty fish, and vegetable oils. 

As we progress into the New Year, it is my sincerest hope that we are able to read, stop, and think critically about new studies. I would like to emphasize the stop part. Let’s take the time to pause and reflect instead of spreading hype and fear. In 2017, let’s spread more knowledge instead of misinformation.