War on “Food” Science Series Highlights Commonly Miscommunicated Food Safety & Nutrition Topics

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Originally published in a series on the Food Insight blog

In the spirit of the National Geographic’s exploration of the War on Science, the IFIC Foundation FACTS Network (Food Advocates Communicating Through Science) – a global, interactive network of scientists, healthcare experts, and food advocates formed to combat the growing tide of deceptive advice, misleading statistics and alarmist tactics – published a three-part series on the Food Insight blog on the War on Food Science. Each installment featured food safety and nutrition experts sharing their perspectives on three commonly miscommunicated topics: quick weight loss fixes, Bisphenol-A, and low-calorie sweeteners. Here’s what the experts had to say about the science on these issues and why they think these issues are so often misreported.

1. Weight Loss Quick Fixes

FACTS Network (FACTS): How does science come into the weight loss discussion? Where is it absent?

Hollie Raynor, PhD, RD, LDN, Associate Professor & Director of Public Health Nutrition, University of Tennessee, Knoxville: Virtually all National Institute of Health (NIH) studies have shown success by 6 months and longer from using a combination of dietary, physical activity, and behavioral strategies.  These types of intervention are called lifestyle interventions.  They produce a degree of weight loss that improves health outcomes, such as the prevention of type 2 diabetes.   Several professional organizations have used this research to provide recommendations for obesity treatment. However, this evidence seems to be absent in the lay media like news reports and magazines.

FACTS: Does being science-based help or hurt weight loss plans in gaining traction with consumers?

Julie Schwartz, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, ACSM-HFS, Certified Wellness Coach: I don’t think it helps or hurts. However, when seeing a science-based plan that has been well-researched versus sexy-looking models and “easy” weight loss, consumers tend to follow their emotions. I do believe there is a strong segment of people who are tired of the trends and want lasting results, who desire help in making the changes to lead to that lasting weight change and to know the behaviors that will lead to sustainment.

FACTS: If you were to develop your perfect science-based media coverage of weight loss and weight management, what would it look like?

HR: Stories would discuss that weight loss occurs due to achievement of negative energy balance, and that weight maintenance occurs because of a balance between energy intake and energy expenditure. Period.


2. Bisphenol-A (BPA)

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is used in food and beverage containers to protect food from contamination that can cause foodborne illness.

FACTS: What do we know about Bisphenol A and any impact it has on our bodies?

Henry Chin, PhD, Food Safety & Risk Communication Expert, Henry Chin & Associates: BPA is probably one of the most studied chemicals in history.  There have been hundreds of studies of the potential health impacts of BPA conducted during the last 30 years.  These studies and nearly all officially sanctioned reviews of the available studies concluded that humans are not at risk from consuming foods that may contain traces of BPA in some packaging materials.

FACTS: Is it safer for families to avoid BPA?

HC: Since BPA doesn’t pose a risk, there is no scientifically valid reason for families to avoid BPA. 

FACTS: What do you think has led to all the media coverage of BPA?

HC: I don’t entirely blame the media for the volume of coverage on BPA.  The media have a responsibility to report new information about alleged risks or dangers to health.  Researchers have an incentive to publish interesting results, and often these results are “interpreted” in creative ways to create more media coverage.

FACTS: How does science fit into BPA coverage?

HC: Media coverage of BPA has seemingly been limited to stories focused on single experiments with untested and uncorroborated conclusions.  There is little coverage that includes experts who examine the entirety of the evidence.  

It’s true that the science of BPA is complex, but science stripped of its complexity is nothing more than rhetoric and should be viewed that way.


3. Low-Calorie Sweeteners

FACTS: What do we know about low-calorie sweeteners and their impact on our bodies?

Robyn Flipse, MS, RDN, Nutrition Communication Services: Low-calorie sweeteners can make foods and beverages taste sweet with no or very few calories compared to sugar and other caloric sweeteners. They don’t raise blood glucose levels or insulin requirements, and they are non-cariogenic, so they don’t contribute to tooth decay. Other than their perceived sweet taste, they have little impact on the body because they mostly pass through it unchanged.

FACTS: What do we know about the safety of low-calorie sweeteners?

John Foreyt, PhD, Director, Behavioral Medicine Research Center, Baylor College of Medicine: All approved low-calorie sweeteners have been rigorously studied and reviewed by governmental and scientific bodies worldwide, prior to being used in food and beverages. FDA-approved low-calorie sweeteners meet the same standards of safety as other foods and are safe for consumption, including by pregnant women and children.

FACTS: Based on the research, do families need to avoid low-calorie sweeteners?

Julie Jones, PhD, CNS, CFS, LN, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emeritus, Department of Family, Consumer and Nutritional Sciences, St. Catherine University: No. Like everything in nutrition, balance is needed.  It’s important to use tools like low-calorie sweeteners in conjunction with a balanced diet, otherwise some patients see the impact of a poor diet and blame low-calorie sweeteners.

FACTS: What’s the craziest claim you’ve seen about a low-calorie sweetener or low-calorie sweeteners in general?

JJ: That low-calorie sweeteners cause weight gain, when research actually shows that low-calorie sweeteners are helpful to reduce calories for those struggling with weight.

RF: I am always amazed by the number of people who believe low-calorie sweeteners can cause cancer, when neither the National Cancer Institute nor the American Cancer Society name low-calorie sweeteners as one of the dietary factors that can increase the risk of developing cancer.

FACTS: How does science fit into the way low-calorie sweeteners are covered in the media and online?

JJ: I wish science fit better.  Those with the ‘mic’ win by using emotion.  Many consumers do not understand that science can change because methods change. I think we have to showcase studies and reviews like Non-Nutritive Sweeteners and Obesity by John Fernstrom that show how low-calorie sweeteners are useful to people with diabetes and those who struggle to reduce calories.

RF: News outlets must compete for our attention, and this need fuels the sometimes irresponsible way that news is reported. Most people don’t read the entire article under the headline or the actual study and they miss important details. I spend more of my time correcting the misinformation that people read in the news about low-calorie sweeteners than I do actually educating them about nutrition and health. It’s a full-time job!

For more insights about the experts and these topics, visit the Food Insight “War on Food Science” blog series.

Also, check out our “Warriors for Science” post!