Why pizza could cut risk of skin cancer' screamed a recent headline in The Sun. In true tabloid fashion, the story reported how the chemical lycopene, found in tomatoes, offers increased protection against the sun's rays, based on a report by researchers at Manchester University. And because pizza contains tomato paste, the story concluded, "the tomato topping cuts the risk".
Like mozzarella cheese on a pizza slice, stretching scientific evidence to create headline after sensational headline, this story is not untypical of media coverage of food and drink. 

Red wine prevents heart attacks. Sausages and bacon cause cancer. Coffee can lead to infertility. Eating bran flakes optimises our chances of giving birth to baby boys. 

It's remorseless. And while some advice may engage consumers in healthy eating, as often as not the contradictions encourage shoppers to tune out, argues Rune Gustafson, chief executive of branding consultancy Interbrand. "Consumers think 'there is too much information, I can't pass judgement and don't know if I can act on it'."
This is a shame, because some of the research that underscores these reports is robust, thorough, important.
Who's to blame? Inevitably attention focuses on the role of the media. Andrew Wadge, FSA chief scientist, believes the media frequently takes scientific reports out of context. "One week you will get stories saying butter is good for you, the next week butter is bad for you. You have stories saying dark chocolate is fantastic for your sex life and will stop you getting heart disease. This is unhelpful.

" The reality is that research projects are often "merely pieces of a jigsaw", he says. "It is the media's responsibility to portray the science accurately. There is a naive view that scientists suddenly shriek Eureka, whereas most science is a very incremental process, with people spending hours, weeks and years, filling in the pieces of a jigsaw.

" Dr Ben Goldacre, The Guardian's junk science columnist, agrees. "Your chances of dying [in middle age] have dropped massively over the past 230 years but that is because of the incremental accumulation of small developments, not any one big breakthrough. But these modest incremental developments are crowbarred into the 'miracle cure/hidden scare' template of journalists, which is where things often go wrong.

" Scientists are not blameless, however. A study at the University of Portsmouth, concluded that tomato soup could increase fertility in men. Not just any soup, either. The subjects had eaten a 400g can of Heinz cream of tomato soup every day for two weeks to prove their theory, which like the pizza story above, related simply to the lycopen in tomatoes. 

Wadge acknowledges that some scientists chase headlines in the same way as editors, to gain recognition and notoriety. He believes they must exercise more caution, calling to mind the time he had to spend countering concerns after widespread media coverage suggested nobody should eat even one bacon sandwich for fear of contracting cancer, following a World Cancer Research Fund report last year.
"The report contained large quantities of data, mostly sound, careful analysis. Sometimes journalists are not careful, but scientists should be more careful, too," he admits. "It wasn't helpful or realistic. It was poor communication of careful scientific analysis.

" Chris Lamb remembers the bacon story only too well. "The message sent out was that bacon kills," the marketing manager of national beef and lamb body Eblex recalls. "And the media quoted it verbatim.

" Yet, curiously, bacon sales in fact went up during this period, he reports. And Lamb believes the message was so "over the top" consumers simply ignored the story. 

So should we not be worried when a damning report comes out? Are consumers inured by the volume and variety of studies? The easiest way to cause panic is when a finding impacts society's most vulnerable people, says Dr Emyr Williams, a former sales and marketing director of Golden Wonder and chairman of Commercial Advantage.
"Consumers are savvy and ignore many newspaper stories but a story will more likely have an effect on a product's sales if that product is aimed at babies, children or pregnant women.

" In one classic example, on April 30 the Daily Mail reported on an Aberdeen University study that claimed unsafe levels of arsenic had been found in more than a third of baby rice. Quite how valid the claims are is hard to say as the report was based on Chinese protocols, but it appeared to catch the FSA off guard as it currently offers no guidance on safe levels of arsenic. It is currently investigating the claims.
In another report in The Observer on April 13, a Trading Standards nursery foods report said toddlers were being fed too much fruit and veg. The report said nurseries were avoiding giving children the high-calorie foods they needed when growing. This was "unsuitable for toddlers and could lead to vitamin deficiencies and even stunted growth"

. While acknowledging most consumers exercise a degree of common sense towards some reports, Williams believes the industry can't afford to be complacent. "Even the stories that appear to be a bit flimsy scientifically may get a bandwagon rolling, whether that bandwagon is justified or not.

" A case in point is the controversy surrounding artificial ingredients. The case against additives and e-numbers, specifically and generally, is building momentum, with supermarkets actively driving reformulation programmes in many cases ahead of government and FSA advice.
This recently led Ajinomoto, the world's largest food additive company, to file a lawsuit against Asda for implying the sweetener aspartame was "nasty", after it highlighted the removal of, among other ingredients, aspartame from its own-label Good For You range with the phrase 'no more nasties'. Ajinomoto says there is no scientific evidence behind the vilification of aspartame. "It is a simple food ingredient made from amino acids, the building blocks of protein that occur widely in our diet, including eggs, meat, fish, cheese and milk.

" Goldacre has some sympathy with Ajinomoto. "Most of the people who campaign against food additives should be taken out and shot for crimes against enlightenment," he says.
Asda is proud of its policy, however. "We have led the way in removing all artificial colours and preservatives from our entire range of own-label food. As part of that process we have also removed some of the ingredients that our customers tell us they don't want in their food, including aspartame." Even Goldacre concedes some additives "genuinely aren't good for you", but he believes only a fraction of the scare stories in the media are cause for genuine concern. "There should be a special body for issuing warnings on the rare occasions when scares aren't bogus.

" The most damaging aspect of scare stories, he adds, is the sheer volume. "It's the daily grind of little pointless stories. There is not any single spectacular scam, it's just thousands of these stupid stories, which misrepresent the nature of evidence.

" Of course, the effects of junk science stories are not always negative. Media interest can generate sometimes astonishing spikes in sales. "Stories in the media can lead to a fall in sales but equally if a story in the press claims goji berries can prolong someone's life by 30 years, we are likely to see an uplift in sales," an Asda spokeswoman argues.
But even where a junk science story has a positive impact, some argue this is not a benign situation. Wadge rails against the increasing use of unfounded health claims.
"There is an onus on manufacturers who make health claims to prove them. If companies are producing supplements that detox the liver, fine, show me the evidence.

" Goldacre believes an even greater onus lies on journalists, however. "I'm not surprised there are individual chancers with pills, goji berries and powders to sell, but what surprises me is that journalists actively help them. Editors like stories that are wacky and eye-catching.

" And Goldacre is not afraid to blame consumers, too. "Everyone knows you should eat fresh fruit and veg, a bit of fish, and drink in moderation, but there is a sense in which we want to offload the sense of responsibility. There is something attractive in the idea that we can buy [a quick fix] for our health, whether that is a goji berry, a pomegranate, or an antioxidant vitamin pill

." So what can the industry do to protect itself from harmful junk science reports? Manufacturers are particularly exposed. And Williams advises suppliers to make themselves aware of any scientific research going on so they can be prepared.
"It's a big challenge to stay abreast of everything under scientific study but it helps if you know what is coming. Large suppliers can even try and involve themselves in the research. A manufacturer wanting to defend itself against a negative story will start the process from three steps back if hit unawares.

" As a retailer, however, the challenge is more simple. If the news is bad it can always divert attention to other products in store. And if it's good? Bring on the pizza.
nclaims & counter-claims
Two glasses of wine a day risks mouth cancer. Daily Telegraph, 9 May 2008
Red wine 'wards off lung cancer'. BBC, 27 October 2004
Red wine 'protects from colds'. BBC, 14 May 2002 

Pregnant women told glass of wine a day is fine - and too dangerous. The Times, 11 October 2007 

A daily tipple is safe for pregnant women. Daily Telegraph, 12 October 2007
Pregnant women told to keep off alcohol. Daily Telegraph, 19 April 2008 

Daily caffeine 'protects brain'. BBC, 2 April 2008 

Coffee 'doubles' the risk of miscarriage. Daily Mail, 21 January 2008 

Decaf coffee linked to heart risk. BBC, 17 November 2005 

Coffee found to be high in health-giving antioxidants. Independent, 29 August 2005
Cup of coffee could cut Alzheimer's risk. Sky News, 3 April 2008 

Coffee may make diabetes worse. BBC, 28 January 2008 

Coffee cuts risk of diabetes. CBS news, 5 January 2004 

Keep eating the bacon butties! New study finds NO evidence of link between salt and heart disease. MoS, 3 November 2007 

Sausage and bacon 'cancer' warning. BBC, 31 March 2008 

Bacon butty cancer risk. The Sun, 31 October 2007 

Save our bacon: Butty battle. The Sun, 1 November 2007