Superfoods science and reporting slammed in NHS report

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

The limitations of scientiifc enquiry are not always accurately conveyed in media reports, the UK NHS has concluded
The limitations of scientiifc enquiry are not always accurately conveyed in media reports, the UK NHS has concluded

Related tags Nutrition

Much of what is written about superfoods is “inaccurate or unhelpful,” according to a new damning report from the UK National Health Service (NHS) website NHS Choices.

The report, Miracle foods, myths and the media​, criticises the plethora of articles published in newspapers, magazines and the internet about “miracle superfoods and killer snacks​.”

It also criticises scientists’ conclusions about such foods. Since testing accurately how one element of diet may affect health, it argues that: “….scientists’ conclusions and media reports of them, should routinely be taken with a pinch of salt​.”

True significance

Over-simplified headlines about the latest dietary discoveries were singled out for particular criticism. Many of the studies behind the superfood claims have their limitations, claims the report. “These limitations are rarely reported in the media and even more rarely given their true significance​.”

Contradictory conclusions were also highlighted by the report. “The news is full of contradictory reports and often the same food is declared healthy one day and harmful the next​,” wrote the reports’ authors.

The report, produced by Behind the Headlines, came after its authors spent three years reviewing health science stories in the media and checked the reported claims against the science on which they are based.

According to team’s 1750 appraisals of food stories published in the national press between mid 1997 and last month, 344 focused on foods with health repercussions. 27 foods had been labeled as harmful by headline writers and 65 had been described as beneficial.

But 14 foodstuffs were labeled as both healthy and harmful in different headlines. “Chocolate for example can reportedly cause weak bones and depression but other studies have claimed that it can also help fight cancer.”

Secret of eternal life

Based on claims made in the UK media over the past two years, the authors pointed out: “You could be forgiven for thinking that the secret of eternal life is a daily vindaloo, washed down with a glass or two of wine and a chocolate dessert​.”

No one from Health Choices was available to comment on the report’s conclusions.

Simple, digestible message

Shane Starling, editor of said: “As this report highlights, much nutrition science is complex and sometimes confounding in its very nature, as indeed is much scientific enquiry. This kind of data often gets warped in a media outlets’ desire to present a simple, digestible message, and as the report notes, even researchers and their PR teams are guilty of this to maximise coverage of often highly expensive studies​.

“We’d like to think we provide a place where nutrition science gets a fair hearing – backed by industry, academic, consumer and government context - and where scientific complexity and ambiguity is not seen as something to be edited out or dumbed down​.”

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