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Choose your health claim headlines carefully

One of the challenges to growing the natural/organic food and supplement industry comes, admittedly, from some of the journalists and writers who cover it.

American journalist and activist Michael Pollan says as much in his book In Defense of Food, and I see it play out daily in my job as associate editor for Functional Ingredients magazine. The challenge lies in the very words we use to communicate about the industry – particularly in research on functional ingredients and natural/organic food and beverages. Since I'm putting myself in this boat, let me explain with an example.

The organic food debate

As one of the NPI Daily e-newsletter's editors, I see a fair amount of health claims of all sorts before they land in your inbox. Recently, this headline caught my attention: "Organic vegetables 'no healthier than conventional food'". We were slated to run the article in last week's e-newsletter… but one big change needed to be made first.

(If you're not familiar with NPIcenter, it's the global information resource for professionals in the nutraceutical, nutritional, dietary supplement, cosmetic, and food industries. We publish daily news and press releases from companies in the industry. You can sign up here for the e-newsletters.)

The article gives a quick overview of a two-year study conducted by environmental scientists at the University of Copenhagen, and published by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Researchers grew potatoes, carrots and onions under organic and traditional conditions, then tested the health properties of each.

The organic vegetable headline above is no doubt alluring. It entices you to click and immediately flips your opinion of what you thought to be true about organic (that is, it's healthier for you). But a quick read of the article reveals the true finding of the published study:

"The end result [of the study] is that there was little difference in the amount of polyphenols in either the onions or the carrots though a slightly higher level in organic potatoes than conventional ones."

The "little difference" in polyphenol levels was translated into organic foods being no healthier overall than non-organic foods. An oversimplification for sure, given the fact that organics don't have pesticides (which, for the record, have been shown to be unhealthy).

I rewrote a less sexy headline for inclusion in our e-newsletter: "Organic, Non-Organic Veggies Have Similar Polyphenol Levels, Study Says"

Perils of unintentionally misleading consumers

This isn't the first research study that pits organics against conventional crop. Another study last year for the UK's Food Standards Agency found that organic food has no additional nutritional health benefits than conventional food. The headline? "Organic food has no health benefits, study finds." (One envisions the author of this headline saying, "Made you click!") The bigger problem with this is not whether or not organic food is better for you than conventional (it appears the scientific jury's out), but that the research is interpreted inaccurately in a headline, leading to misled consumers.

Just today, we published an article on NPIcenter titled: "Inaccurate Reporting on Recent Omega-3 DHA Alzheimer's Study." This article clarifies that the Alzheimer's study involved algal oil, not fish oil, as some media outlets mistakenly reported. It's worth noting that most people don't make these mistakes on purpose.

As journalists, we're restricted by character count and reader attention for headlines — especially online. But because the headline is big and bold, and often the only portion of the story busy people fully read, it's even more important that headlines are accurate.

We've got standards

This is what sets New Hope Natural Media publications apart: We have a Standards Department which helps educate about FDA, USDA, and FTC regulations. When writing, that means if a headline or health claim in an article says a supplement or other ingredient is "proven" to do something like, say, cure digestive irritation, we'll change it to "may help" or "shown to help digestive irritation."

Some may argue the whole point of science is to hypothesize and then prove the hypothesis valid or invalid. But there are few things that can absolutely be proven (except, maybe, that the Dallas Cowboys won't win the Super Bowl this year), so we err on the side of caution. To maintain a good reputation, the industry should, too.

Have you ever been duped by a headline? Leave a comment.

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