Coffee is good, now it’s bad, but it’s good again. No wait, it’s bad, we’re sure this time.
I’m confused. Can we make up our minds?
No, we cannot. Because Public Relations(PR) companies are responsible for most of the promotion these studies get. A Public Relations company working for the coffee industry is going to look for studies that lean toward coffee being good for us. A PR company working for someone else, say a tea or water company want the studies that say the opposite.
There are many food myths that have been propagated by means of PR.
- Saturated Fat consumption is linked to heart disease
- Red meat causes cancer
- Raw milk is dangerous
These are just a few myths based on biased scientific studies and propagated by PR companies working for industries that will benefit. Once they find a study they like, it’s time for another useful tool, repetition. If you repeat something over and over again through enough different channels, people will begin to believe it. The tobacco companies used this tactic for years to stall regulations and judgements against them.
Most of the studies we hear about are short term. A PR company finds one thing that proves a point they like, then they publish it. So why would the news media report such questionable studies? It comes down to money. Budgets are tight. Newspapers and networks do not have the staff to fact check everything.
The news media these days are busy, strapped for cash, and looking for stories. With the advent of 24 hour news channels networks suddenly have a lot of time to fill. It’s expensive to produce all these packages. So when a PR company calls offering a free news package, the channels scoop them up.
Newspapers are especially susceptible to this. With the rise of the internet, newspapers everywhere are in decline. They can’t afford to have a full staff anymore. They’re looking for way to cut costs and generate revenue. PR companies are more than happy to provide pre-written articles for free, or even paid for.
Native Advertising companies like Sharethrough or Outbrain proudly boast how they can get your ads posted on sites like: CNN, Fox News, fortune, New York Times, etc. Native Advertising has been shown to be much more effective than traditional advertising. They are piggybacking off the hard earned trust built by the publisher.
The next time you’re watching the local news, keep an eye out for a random feel good story. Probably something that happened in another city. Listen closely. Are they frequently naming one specific company throughout the piece? This is native advertising.
You can do the same thing with a newspaper or online news site. If you see an article touting the benefits of a certain product or company, you can be reasonably sure that it was paid for or written by a PR company.
Native advertising isn’t inherently evil. I’ve found many useful products through articles in magazines or on a website. It all comes down to trust. I knew these articles were probably native ads, but I trusted the publisher to vet the product before they promoted it. Companies have to advertise. Otherwise they will go out of business.
The next time you’re reading an article claiming scientific studies show that such and such food is bad for you, stop and ask yourself. Who benefits? When raw milk is called a health risk, the industrial dairy industry benefits. When claims are made that all milk is bad, who benefits? Soy milk, almond milk, or other alternative milk companies.
Big corporations have been using PR for years to sway public opinion. Let’s go over a few examples.
Myth #1: Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Cause Heart Disease
For years we’ve been told by our doctors and the government to eat less red meat, not eat butter or eggs. Eat fat-free foods (which tend to be high in sugar). We now know that these recommendations are wrong, but where did they come from?
In the late fifties, Ancel Keys gathered data on over 12,000 middle-aged men in 7 countries in Europe, Japan, and the United States. The study showed a correlation between intake of saturated fats and deaths from heart disease. Thus beginning the decades long vilification of fat.
Who benefits from this myth? The sugar industry.
A recent article1 in the New York Times reveals that the sugar industry paid scientists up a year’s wage to publish handpicked studies that downplayed the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the cause. These studies became gospel and shaped the way we viewed fat for decades.
According to Nicole Hahn-Niman in her book Defending Beef, the Ancel Keys study is flawed. It shows a correlation between fat and heart disease. But what it fails to point out, is that there is an even bigger correlation between the consumption of sugar and heart disease.2
This study left out many countries in Europe, such as France and Germany, that did not show high signs of heart disease, despite high consumption of saturated fats. This study was clearly designed to shift the blame for heart disease away from sugar and blame it on saturated fat.
This myth has permeated every facet of traditional health advice. Suddenly anything with saturated fat or cholesterol was off limits. People were instructed to eat margarine instead of butter. Margarine is made from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Let’s talk about vegetable oils.
Myth #2: Use Vegetable Oils Instead of Lard, Butter, or Beef Tallow
Eat margarine, not butter. Use vegetable oil for frying, not lard, not beef tallow. Vegetable oils do not contain saturated fats and therefore are heart healthy.
This advice has been promoted by the grain industry since the 1970s. These companies wanted americans to stop eating so much animal products and eat their products instead. It’s all about increasing market share.
Vegetable oils are produced by mechanical and solvent extraction. This leaves traces of solvents such as hexane in the oil. These oils go through a process of caustic refining, bleaching and degumming–all of which involve high temperatures or chemicals of questionable safety.3
Hydrogenated vegetable oil products such as shortenings and margarine contain trans fat. Even canola oil, touted for being heart healthy due to its high levels of omega-3, is not good for you. This is due to the heavy processing that canola oil must go through to become edible. During the deodorization process most of the omega-3s in canola oil are transformed into trans fats.4 They managed to turn something healthy into something unhealthy.
In the 1940’s, researchers found a strong correlation between cancer and the consumption of fat—the fats used were hydrogenated fats although the results were presented as though the culprit were saturated fats. For years saturated fats were lumped in with trans fats in various US databases used by researchers to correlate dietary trends with disease conditions. Despite being frequently studied together, saturated fat always got the publicity, trans fat was rarely mentioned.5
Myth #3: All chickens live in sunny fields surrounded by happy cows and pigs.
Just drive by any commercial chicken farm. You’ll see the truth. You’ll smell it too.
Myth #4: Raw Milk is Dangerous
Government agencies, encouraged by the dairy industry, have been warning that raw milk will make us sick. They claim that raw milk may contain pathogens and contribute to foodborne illness. This despite the fact that pasteurized milk is by the same logic also unsafe because it also may contain pathogens.
This myth is being propagated by the dairy industry. They do not want competition from small dairies taking market share away from them. Milk consumption is already on the decline. Again, market share is the motivating factor. Not science.
The FDA and other government agencies like being in control. Raw milk is produced outside of their control. They don’t trust small farmers or businesses. They believe that they are the only ones qualified to say what’s safe to eat and what’s not. Consumers are dumb, we have to tell them what to eat. After all, if consumers we’re truly free to choose the food they eat, the these government agencies would be irrelevant.
Reports on the dangers of raw milk are greatly exaggerated.6 In an analysis of reports on 70 outbreaks attributed to raw milk, the Weston A Price Foundation found many examples of reporting bias, errors and poor analysis resulting in most outbreaks having either no valid positive milk sample or no valid statistical association.
A government document published in 2003 indicates that on a per-serving basis, deli meats are ten times more likely to cause foodborne illness than raw milk.6 Surely you’ve heard about this. No? Well, you can thank the dairy industry.
Myth #5: The Food Pyramid Promotes Healthy Eating
In 1992 the USDA created the food pyramid. The base of the pyramid was the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group. It recommended 7-11 servings of this group. More than twice that of any other group. All of these food items contain mostly carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are broken down into sugar during digestion.
The food pyramid lumps fats in with sweets. This is just another example of fat being considered as unhealthy as sugar. Meanwhile carbohydrates and sugar have been shown to be more likely to cause weight gain than animal fats.7
The food pyramid was developed using input and questionable science from industry funded experts. One such study fed mice soybean oil, hydrogenated coconut oil, sugar, and maltodextrin to make them obese. Only then did they study the effects of that obesity. Of course, no one talks about what caused the obesity, only what happened once the mice were obese.8
The takeaway you need to remember is that the government and news media do not perform their own studies. They merely review studies done at the behest of industry or independent groups. The government is highly influenced by industry by means of campaign donations, lobbying, and hiring of officials that have ties to the industry they are regulating.
The news media is likewise influenced by industry by means of large advertising campaigns and scientific studies that may or may not be biased. If a large corporation is spending many millions of dollars advertising with a single news company, that is going to have an effect on the news coverage. The writers, editors, and producers do not want to risk upsetting a major advertiser. They cannot afford to lose them as an advertiser.
Large companies have a lot to lose and a lot to gain, depending on what the public thinks about them. They have a lot of money to use to sway public opinion, and they do so every day.
On the other hand, small local farms do not have a lot of money. They don’t hide behind lawyers, no trespassing signs, and pretty packaging. They cant afford expensive PR companies, but that’s okay. They don’t need them. The truth is on their side, as is their army of happy customers.
- Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman, 2014
- Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman, 2014
- Death by Food Pyramid by Denise Minger