It was a scam that highlighted the gullibility of the world’s media.
Last week hoaxers came clean about a study - reported across the globe - that claimed eating a chocolate bar a day accelerated the weight loss of a low-carb diet by 10%.
Not only was it based on a meaninglessly small sample, they revealed, but their credentials and even their academic institute had been fabricated.
Yet what the fakers did not report was that this not the first study to suggest chocolate has a link with weight loss.
‘Is this the best news ever?’ asked the Daily Mail in 2013 about a study from the University of Granada, backing the previous year’s findings from the University of California, suggesting chocolate eaters have less body fat.
As for the bad news on the health front, a few years ago a Facebook page was set up to mark all the products the Mail reported could give you cancer. The list included, to name a few, being a man, a woman, black, eating bread, burgers, caffeine, calcium, carbohydrates and using Facebook.
Yet as much as this hoax exposed the gullibility of journalists, it is also a reminder that there’s no shortage of junk science being peddled.
Last week Action on Sugar revealed the “huge amount of hidden sugars in seemingly ‘healthy’ fruit snacks aimed at children, warning three quarters of products contained more sugars than a Haribo Starmix.
“Parents find it hard enough to know what is ‘healthy’ without food manufacturers confusing matters with misleading claims,” says Katharine Jenner, campaign director at the group.
Yet AOS has itself been “confusing matters”. Last month The Grocer revealed how a report co-written by leading AOS adviser Dr Aseem Malhotra, ‘You cannot outrun a bad diet,’ was temporarily pulled from the British Journal of Sports Medicine website, having failed to declare the potential competing interests of its authors, including one being a paid-up member of the Atkins Advisory Board and another authoring books promoting low-carb diets and exercise. The article, since amended to flag up the authors’ interests, was defended by journal editor Professor Karim Khan when approached by The Grocer. “It is clear from the international media uptake of Dr Malhotra’s editorial, and related content by him and others, that current dietary guidelines need questioning,” he said.
Yet with Malhotra accused by the British soft drinks Foundation of promoting an agenda to “help fund the service that pays his salary”, it appears the recent meeting between the BSDA, FDF and campaigners including AOS to find “common ground” on sugar has a way to go.
“There’s so much misinformation and bad science out there,” claims one industry leader involved in those talks. “People accuse big food of manipulating the truth but this has turned into a propaganda battle where both sides manipulate opportunities. There needs to be a much more connected approach to public health.”
“There are many stories of nutritionists struggling to keep the marketing department on a leash,” counters a leading food nutritionist, who believes regulations such as the EU’s recent health claims legislation or ASA rules don’t always keep the industry in check.
Protein World was recently the centre of protests and even bomb threats in London after using posters of bikini-clad models asking ‘Are you beach body ready?’ to plug its slimming pills. The campaign was banned in the UK but has moved to New York, with “amazing” publicity resulting.
The real concern is that, amid the sensationalist headlines and shock reports, consumers are more confused than ever. In a survey of nearly 3,000 people by MMR asking which ingredient most concerned them, sugar led on 954 votes, aspartame was third on 802, and those who said they didn’t know came in at 897.
“There is a real dilemma for consumers when it comes to sweetening options - and healthy eating more generally,” says MMR insights director Andy Wardlaw.
Dr Glenys Jones, research lead at the Association for Nutrition, says: “People are after quick fixes and the sad truth is that balanced diets don’t make such good headlines.”