Nutrition Misinformation: Setting the Record Straight

Article excerpt

Fact or fiction?

* Cutting carbohydrates from the diet is the best way to lose weight.

* Low-calorie sweeteners cause weight gain.

* Raw chicken should be rinsed before cooking.

The fact is, all of the above statements are fiction and classified as nutrition misinformation. Yet, consumers often hold these as erroneous beliefs.

Not only does nutrition misinformation confuse consumers about the best dietary advice to follow, but acting on misinformation may result in detrimental health and economic consequences (American Dietetic Association, 2006). This may occur when someone chooses to stop following a medically prescribed diet in lieu of an unproven alternate treatment or spends money on products or services that have little or no efficacy. For example, many consumers are attracted to easy-sounding weight loss diets and products, many without validity. This has led to a U.S. weight loss industry in excess of $30 billion per year (Cummings, Parham, & Strain, 2002).

Because family and consumer sciences (FCS) professionals are a trusted source of information for consumers, they can play a key role in correcting misinformation and providing scientific facts about nutrition.

Where Does Nutrition Misinformation Come From?

Sources of nutrition misinformation range from unscientific information intentionally spread by sources looking to further a cause to well-meaning but inaccurate "advice" from a next-door neighbor. The media are consumers' top source of nutrition information (Food Marketing Institute, 2003), but also a source of misinformation when reports fail to provide enough context and salient details (International Food Information Council, 2005). Some reports sensationalize findings to attract an audience, leaving consumers afraid, frustrated, and confused.

Consumers may not know that information found on the Internet is not regulated for accuracy and that some Web sites serve up, at best, questionable content. E-mail messages purporting blatant misinformation-sometimes called urban legends-can circulate around the globe with the click of a mouse.

A case in point is the e-mail hoax linking the low-calorie sweetener aspartame with a host of health ills. In fact, aspartame is one of the most thoroughly studied food ingredients. The Food and Drug Administration and leading health organizations such as the American Dietetic Association and the American Diabetes Association have affirmed aspartame's safety (American Diabetes Association, 2006; American Dietetic Association, 2004; Food and Drug Administration, 2006). Kroger, Meister, and Kava (2006) provided a comprehensive research review on the safety of aspartame and other low-calorie sweeteners.

Helping Consumers Sort Fact from Fiction

The following steps can help FCS professionals guide consumers toward science-based nutrition information:

* Be prepared. Monitor nutrition information in the media and on the Internet and be ready to proactively provide the correct information and answer questions.

* Caution consumers about nutrition information that goes against accepted dietary recommendations such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans or USDA's MyPyramid.gov. Advise consumers to investigate what respected health authorities say on the matter or to ask a trusted health professional or a professional at their local Cooperative Extension office for perspective.

* Warn consumers about Web sites and e-mail hoaxes that use scare tactics to spread nutrition misinformation. Recommend credible sources of online information such as www. …