“Eat this and die.” Two Steps to Outsmart Media Marketing of Fear

Whether you’re a Trump fan or not is irrelevant when it comes to the mainstream media's role in his election. There was much inaugural hand wringing and self-examination of the inadvertent role media played by covering every tweet and provocative campaign comment.

Yet, many of the same media outlets and others play a similarly complicit role in the marketing of food fear, causing hand-wringing on the part of consumers who may reject a food for no good reason for fear of potential health issues that range from joint pain to death.

By publishing anything claiming to have a whiff of scientific basis, assigning it a nefarious headline and relinquishing responsibility to verify its legitimacy, media counter their own noble pursuit by contributing to consumer confusion instead of being a beacon of clear, reliable information.

“Carcinogenic pesticide found in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream” and “Chemical in mac and cheese tied to birth defects” are among the latest alarming headlines.

I understand that it's often no easier for media to sort through the sea of pseudoscience than for its audience. In fact, one could argue that in the highly competitive modern age of the 24/7 race to be first to post and the unrelenting pressure to quickly turn multiple stories in any given day, the public shouldn't expect Pulitzer prize-winning journalism.

Often, media outlets hungry for content and short on staff simply post news releases verbatim – no scrutiny applied – from an author, company, advocacy group or public relations firm. One recent example is “These 7 foods are scientifically proven to put you in a bad mood” article, which was picked up by many media outlets including AOL, MSN and Glamour.

With a simple 10-minute search for the science behind each claim (if scientific studies were even provided), I discovered the article didn’t “prove” much of anything. As is the case here, so often science “suggests” a link or claims consuming a certain ingredient (in unrealistic, outrageous amounts in many cases) “may” cause various health conditions.

The mere presence of a chemical in a food doesn’t make it harmful, but often stories lead us to believe otherwise.

Consider the “high levels’ of phthalates recently reported in the cheese powder of various boxed macaroni and cheese products. One of the companies whose products were tested said the amounts of phthalates reported in the study are “more than 1,000 times lower than levels that scientific authorities have identified as acceptable.”

But the “fear your food” headlines lure readers in because there’s nothing quite as personal as the food we eat and feed our kids, and how it impacts our health. And more readers means more advertising dollars. That means more editors and reporters get to keep their jobs. I understand. I was a reporter too, scrambling every day to dig up stories on deadline that were compelling and would make my boss happy.

So, where does this leave consumers? Swimming in a sea of conflicting studies, claims that don't deserve the label “science” and flat-out efforts to market food fears. Trust research from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) shows that the public wants full transparency – the good, the bad and the ugly – so they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families.

But until they get it, here are two steps anyone can follow to outsmart the marketing of food fears.

1. Read beyond the headline. Many times, reporters start a story with the most shocking nuggets to draw you in, but end with statements from experts like, “the study raises important questions but doesn’t prove causation,” or “it’s probably not cause for concern.” In a time of increasingly shrinking attention spans, I’d venture to guess a good number of readers don’t get to that last paragraph. Try starting there!

2. Don’t accept an “eat this and die” story as gospel without viewing at least two other sources. Before you believe a claim, do a quick online search of the topic. The search results alone may paint a more balanced picture, but select at least two other credible sources and see what they say.

Consumers are smarter than those who market fear believe. These two steps empower you to outsmart the marketing of food fears without a PhD. Let’s face it; the pseudoscience food stories aren’t likely to go away, so our diligence in digging for the truth is the key to making healthy choices in the grocery aisle.

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