Consumers are confused about food issues. Wine is good for you; wine is bad. Coffee protects you; coffee kills you. Chocolate makes you thin; chocolate makes you fat. From bacon to butter, we’ve all watched the endless carousel of contradictory food information, complexifying food choices, and leaving consumers with no clue on who to trust for accurate information.
This week was a textbook example of how the sensationalist media misinterprets actual science for a clickbait headline, and then how that headline morphs into a new false truth. This is how fake health news is born and raised, ironically leading to negative health effects and fewer food choices.
Case study: Canola and Alzheimer’s
This particular story starts with a report from Temple University researchers. The December 2017 study in Scientific Reports examined mice that were genetically engineered to develop Alzheimer Disease (AD) related neurological pathologies. They were split into two small groups. One group was fed standard lab chow for six months, and the other was fed standard lab chow plus canola oil. The mice were then subjected to a battery of mouse memory tests, and their brains and neuronal proteins were examined.
The results showed that the oil-fed mice gained significantly more weight. The mice performed slightly less adeptly on a standard mouse test (the Y-maze), but performed comparably in two other tests. The brains of oil-eating mice contained a ratio of protein variants consistent with the AD signature plaques and tangles, and were lower in a protein marker for neuronal integrity. All other markers were comparable.
The authors’ conclusions were generally in line with the data. However, they did report, “significant deficits in working memory,” an interpretation that maybe isn’t entirely consistent with a 20% deficit in one behavioral test, when other tests were not statistically different.
In the paper, the authors compared the results of this study to their earlier report that showed potential protective effects of olive oil. Canola oil and olive oil have similar profiles in ratios of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fat, so it is a good hypothesis to test. The authors did not find the same benefits in canola oil. A direct side-by-side comparison of canola and olive oil was not performed, and olive oil-consuming mice exhibited weight gain as well in a previous study by the same group.
The scientific interpretation based on the limits of the experimental design—mice genetically altered to exhibit AD-like neural pathology, fed more calories from oil, become obese, showed evidence of markers consistent with lower neurological function, and exhibited slight symptoms consistent with memory problems.
The data do not show, in any way, that canola oil causes memory problems, dementia, obesity, and Alzheimer’s Disease, especially in humans.
But what did the media say?
The problem starts off with Temple University’s press release. The title, “Canola Oil Linked to Worsened Memory and Learning Ability in in Alzheimer’s Disease, Temple Researchers Report,” is a real stretch of what the researchers actually found. It could be true. It could be not true. It is certainly not what could be gleaned from the data, and certainly was not what they reported as a conclusion in their paper.
From there, a press fueled by sensational stories was happy to take this nugget and extrapolate to wild dimensions.
Within a day numerous sources, including Newsweek and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, were pumping the concrete connection between canola oil and brain death. Twitter exploded with the validating retweets of this false interpretation of a reasonable experiment and good data.
Worse, if you were to search twitter for “canola” and “Dr.” you find dozens of physicians retweeting this hyperbolic extrapolation, probably to patients and other followers that turn to physicians for trusted health information.
Canola is loathed by many food activists because a large proportion of the crop is genetically engineered. They too reveled in the lofty over-interpretation, citing the work as a definitive evidence of canola oil’s central role as the cause of degenerative brain disease.
Why does highly propagated misinformation matter?
Abundant evidence exists that shows the cardiovascular benefits of diets low in saturated fats. Canola oil, like olive oil, features the majority of its fats as the monounsaturated type, which have been considered to be healthy alternatives to other oils. There are legitimate associations with reducing cholesterol and other cardiovascular risks.
When the media inflates a morsel of evidence in an Alzheimer’s mouse model to be synonymous with causing and accelerating a dreaded human disease, there are consequences. Physicians make mistakes, as they don’t have time to investigate these claims in great detail. Diet and nutrition advice from other experts may also be influenced by the authority of a university press release and trusted news sources.
So what? People will just use olive oil, right? Sure. If you can afford it.
Canola oil’s appeal is that it has the same healthy fat profile of olive oil, only at a much lower cost. Canola oil is also processed to be flavor neutral, which is desirable in some recipe applications. Olive oil also has many other trace compounds that could be imparting its claimed benefits. But that does not mean that canola oil is brain poison.
The overstatement in the media can radically skew consumer choice, causing a frightened public to instead opt for saturated fats with heart-health implications. The precautionary plaque-free mind knows that you can get a triple bypass, and it’s hard to unravel tangled brain chemistry.
Amplification of sensational food claims has repercussions. It harms people and their choices and options, particularly the poor. It harms canola farmers that produce a huge amount of the crop here in North America, and it shifts options away from the more environmentally friendly annual oil crop, to resource- and labor-intensive olive orchards.
It is a perfect storm for distrust. A set of experiments by competent experts, an exaggerated press release from a university communications office and runaway unfiltered media turn a modest set of results into a public health crisis. It is the perfect recipe to sprout a horrendously bogus claim from a seed of truth and a stunning example of how false information propagates and shapes food choice.
Kevin M. Folta is a Professor and Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. He teaches science communication workshops for scientists and ag professionals, and hosts the weekly podcast Talking Biotech. Follow him on twitter @kevinfolta