Create Your Own Food Myths for Fun and Profit

One more post on food myths. Sometimes, people and organizations can gain--and even profit--from food myths. And once in a while you’ll find organizations that profit by making up their very own myths.

Which brings us to the two worst examples I've seen of a someone creating and profiting from food myths. Coincidentally (or not), both examples come from the same organization: The Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The CSPI is an attention-hungry watchdog group with the laudable mission of protecting and advocating for consumers. The organization's thirst for media attention, however, led to the publication of their infamous Ten Riskiest Foods report a few years ago, giving us our first example of a profitable myth: the myth of the "epidemic" of food poisoning.

I encourage readers to take a moment to look at my fisking of the Ten Riskiest Foods report. Under the guise of warning us of a seemingly serious health risk, the CSPI did a few things:

1) It encouraged consumers to avoid several perfectly safe and healthy foods because of massively exaggerated fears of food poisoning.

2) By manufacturing a health scare it drew attention and resources away from real health policy issues.

3) The CSPI itself gained an enormous amount of media attention, thanks in large part due to its own exaggerations and sensationalism.

Points 1 and 2 could be dangerous, point 3 is merely self-serving. But if we take all three points together, we severely stretch the boundaries of public health ethics.

On one level, the Ten Riskiest Foods report was well-played. There's a lot going on in the world, and people can only give their attention to a fraction of the things happening out there. "Food poisoning by ice cream" is the kind of thing that grabs readers, which is why so many people saw and heard media reports on this study. And of course nobody--certainly not the journalists repeating the myths--bothered to break out a calculator to figure out that the total number of cases cited in the report worked out to less than a rounding error.

Interestingly, despite an incredibly low incidence rate, we all seem to have a vague sense that food poisoning is a serious and growing problem. And yet, like airline crashes, we only hear about every single event because they are so rare. Which further serves to illustrate the power of myths.

The result? The CSPI gets the publicity, and we get a myth. A myth that greatly misleads us about the actual risks we face in life. This is one of the many reasons why in the modern era, when life is the safest it has ever been, we all feel more fearful than ever.

But perhaps an even worse example of CSPI mythmaking came long before the Ten Riskiest Foods report was a even glint in this organization's eye. This example dates all the way back to the 1980s, when the CSPI got media attention by pushing for increased use of transfats. Yes, increased.  That was until it changed its own myth--and got still more media attention--by later advocating against them. This excellent article from the Media Research Center summarizes the story here.

Granted, an organization is free to change its mind, and many nutrition scientists did just that about transfats: they decided they were a lot less healthy then they thought before.

What's glaring here is how the CSPI benefited from holding both positions without ever having to own up to being wrong. They voted for transfats before they voted against them!

Perhaps it isn't quite fair to single out the CSPI. It's far from the only group out there standing to gain from mythmaking. Plenty of food pundits employ the "healthy food has to be expensive" myth to rationalize all sorts of subsidies, food bans and politically imposed food policies. Even New Jersey's own Cory Booker, a perfectly good guy, helped spread that myth--admittedly inadvertently--when he did his incompetently executed food stamp challenge. Booker got positive media coverage and political credit for showing empathy with the poor. The rest of us got more "proof" that it costs a lot to eat healthy.

But do you want to know who is the quintessential exemplar, right now, of someone who gains from food myths? The Food Babe--with her downright freakish talent for manufacturing phony health scare myths on a near-weekly basis.

One final thought: A good myth is hard to debunk. It can take years. Think of when a newspaper runs something inaccurate, and then later runs a correction. The original story usually runs on the front page, where everybody sees it. The correction runs in tiny print on page A-29, where nobody sees it.

Remember these two examples from the CSPI. They got the publicity, the donations, and the reputational benefit of (supposedly) fighting for the consumer. We got stuck with conflicting information and still more myths. Heads they win, tails we lose.

Readers, is it ethical for advocacy groups to bend the truth to gain attention for their cause--even if it's ostensibly a good cause? What do you think?

Read Next: The Tragic Tale of Peat Village: A Natural Resource Fable

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chacha1 said...

I don't trust "advocacy groups" any more than I trust lobbyists. From where I stand, they are functionally indistinguishable.

Daniel said...

Hadn't really thought about it that way before Chacha, but I agree with you. Thanks for the insight.