Snakeoil Salesmen at it Again
The sensational story about tilapia seen this week in the “Healthy Food Team” and “Danified.com” is nothing short of embarrassing. The alarmist article dispenses hyperbole about tilapia that has been debunked and discredited by doctors, dietitians, and scientists years ago. However, it shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise, these are the same websites claiming the combination of salt and oil will make you “not feel pain for couple of years” and that their Homemade Apple Vinegar Recipe is “Proven to Melt Fat!” (Hmmm…might Dr. Oz run their editorial board?)
Questions about the healthfulness of tilapia, one of America’s most-consumed fish, have been asked and answered. In fact, the very scientist, Dr. Floyd Chilton of Wake Forest University, who got the conversation started about tilapia in 2008 when he compared omega-6 and omega-3 levels in the fish, has said on-the-record, that his comments about tilapia were taken out of context. “We never intended to paint tilapia as the cause of anything bad. Our goal was to provide consumers with more information about their fish.”
Furthermore, after Dr. Chilton’s study saw a misguided and confused media reaction, an impressive panel of 16 doctors spoke out about the issue to clarify that fish like tilapia are low in total and saturated fat, high in protein and clearly part of a healthy diet.
Additionally, a pair of registered dietitians at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic also weighed in after the Wake Forest paper and the media reaction. In their Nutrition-wise blog they wrote, “Does this mean you should give [tilapia] up? No!” “My take? I’m going to continue to eat fish — at least twice weekly. I’m going to choose a variety of fatty fish — including tilapia.”
For a well-balanced, heart-healthy diet, eat a variety of seafood, including tilapia. And yes, I’m sorry to report that there is also likely no basis in the truth for Danified.com’s article “Drinking water on an empty stomach can help get rid of deadly diseases.” Don’t shoot the messenger.
Journalistic Failures of Newsweak
It’s embarrassing from a reporting perspective for Newsweek to allow the narrative and the voices in this seafood sustainability piece to go unchallenged, when governments across the globe are spearheading efforts to increase seafood consumption. To suggest seafood is not needed in the diet conflicts with the vast amount of independent, peer-reviewed science that continues to find eating seafood can help prevent and aid in the recovery of conditions from depression to heart-disease to osteoporosis. In fact, a Harvard study found that low seafood consumption in America is the second-biggest dietary contributor to preventable deaths, taking 84,000 lives a year. (For perspective, low intake of fruits and vegetables take 58,000 lives each year.) This article also leaves out important information about the robust sustainability efforts the seafood community is involved in, like the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation. Newsweek also might want to consider that in order to replace the protein harvested by commercial seafood, man would have to clear-cut all of the world’s rainforests 22 times over, according to renowned University of Washington fisheries scientist Professor Ray Hilborn. It’s simply not reasonable or responsible to suggest people stop eating fish.
Greenpeace bottomed out?
Greenpeace’s credibility has been plummeting for years. Stunts like damaging Peru’s ancient Nazca lines and holding dance parties on multi-million dollar yachts have exposed Greenpeace as an organization that is far from a serious stakeholder in the conservation community. In fact, its track record lead one of Greenpeace’s co-founders to lash out at the group this past summer explaining that, “science and logic no longer held sway. Sensationalism, misinformation and fear is what [Greenpeace] use[s] to promote… campaigns.”
And now, Greenpeace’s own peers in the NGO community are distancing themselves from the already marginalized group. Mark Berman of Earth Island Institute called out Greenpeace over its recent campaign targeting the tuna industry. Putting it bluntly, “I have a problem with Greenpeace. They’re doing the wrong thing.”
For years Greenpeace has refused to join responsible NGO’s working on tuna sustainability and instead has chosen to spend lavishly on plushy costumes and billboards that promote misinformation about the industry… spending no money on any actual tuna sustainability science.
We can’t imagine Mr. Berman is the only NGO director who feels this way about Greenpeace. The more Greenpeace acts like a petulant child and not like a reasonable adult, the more they’ll be treated that way.
Oh… and don’t think Greenpeace’s high dollar donors aren’t getting the message that high seas raves and completely ineffective call-in harassment campaigns are mothballed NGO tactics used by dinosaurs.
Greenpeace & the Irony of Advertising Its Own Failure
Promoting the next in its long line of colossal failures, Greenpeace targets American tuna companies by attacking them on billboards that are thinly disguised fundraising tools designed to fill their coffers rather than fix the challenges they claim exist. While reasonable, responsible environmental and ocean health organizations work hand-in-hand with tuna canners, who spend millions on sustainability efforts, Greenpeace harasses businesses with billboards, blimps and costumed protesters.
Not to put too fine a point on it but no one takes Greenpeace seriously in this country.
And why would anyone? Cartoon billboards, embarrassingly under attended days-of-action and rhetoric that consistently fails to match reality are all things that marginalize organizations. Greenpeace has been marginalizing itself for years and its latest stunts only serve to further isolate it from the adults doing the real sustainability work.
What Greenpeace fears most is having its ineffective shenanigans exposed, not to American consumers, who already don’t care, but to its institutional donors. They don’t want those big-dollar givers, who help Greenpeace bring in $700,000 A DAY in donations, to realize that stunts don’t equal sustainability work. Fancy yachts and funny videos are hardly the type of return on investment that most donors are looking for.
Perhaps next time it rents out a billboard, Greenpeace will simply write on it the dollar amount they’ve spent on tuna sustainability science. In fact… we dare you.
Newsweek Botches Advice to Parents
A recent article from Newsweek by Melania Juntti [11 Foods You Should Never Feed Your Kids] recklessly includes canned tuna among foods parents should not feed their children.
This is not only wrong, it’s counterproductive—even dangerous—advice for parents of growing children. If Newsweek advised mothers to forego the usual suspects in the food wars—sugary drinks or fatty snacks, say—kids may or may not benefit. But no harm would be done.
But when parents keep one of the most convenient, affordable, and nutritious sources of omega-3 fatty acids away from their children, they risk impairing their child’s cognitive development and their own cardiovascular health.
As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN notes: “Fish oils in fatty fish are the richest source of a type of fat that is vital to normal brain development in unborn babies and infants. Without adequate amounts of these fatty acids, normal brain development does not take place.”
Blake, a Clinical Associate Professor at Boston University, is right to list species like swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish—which, along with shark, are the only four fish the FDA recommends pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children avoid. But she hurts public health by baselessly lumping canned albacore tuna into the same category. The reality is many young children, and especially pregnant women, aren’t eating nearly enough fish as it is. Needlessly scaring them will only exacerbate the problem.
Indeed, it’s exactly this kind of misguided and confusing advice that has prompted government regulators and nutrition experts to search for more accurate, intuitive, and effective ways of communicating the importance of seafood-rich diets to growing families. Instead of trying to scare women and their young families away from eating fish, Juntti should would better serve her readers by joining that effort.
New York Times Falls Victim To Its Own Warning
Over at the New York Times, Jim Windolf astutely notes that the American media has a corrosive habit of fomenting hysteria over nonexistent health threats, and that we’d probably be better off tuning out the doomsayers and going about our lives. The irony is that Windolf rattles off a long list of these supposed nutritional dangers in the course of making his argument, but makes no distinction between nutrition advice rooted in sound science and mere myths propagated by agenda-driven activists and quack lifestyle gurus.
In fact, Windolf uncritically repeats one of the most destructive phony health scares in recent memory: the baseless myth that eating seafood like tuna is a threat to your health.
Windolf links to NRDC, an eco-activist group, to support this claim, which is both a missed opportunity and a teachable moment. It’s a missed opportunity to remind readers that not all sources are equally credible. The fear-mongering of the agenda-driven fringe, for example, does not warrant the same attention as the ever growing mountain of studies on the nutritional benefits of seafood from leading global health organizations like the UN, World Health Organization or even the Government’s own Dietary Guidelines. The hypothetical fears of the professional fundraisers at NRDC do not deserve equal footing with, say, Harvard University’s finding that 84,000 preventable deaths occur each year due to a low seafood consumption.
It’s a teachable moment because instead of throwing up his hands and resolving (even in jest) to ignore all nutrition advice, Windolf could have asked how we can do a better job of making sure the public is guided by the best science, and not the loudest quack.
Conveniently enough, a big part of that responsibility lays at the feet Windolf’s employers at the New York Times, which has trumpeted groundless fears about tuna on multiple occasions, including one story so error-ridden and out-of-line with accepted journalistic standards that the author was publicly admonished by the Times public editor.
As long as supposedly credible outlets like the Times continue to publish misleading articles on health—whether out of ideological sympathy with the activists pushing them, or a simple desire to milk clicks by scaring readers—the dynamic Windolf decries will continue, and public health will suffer.
More Dangerous Misinformation from Consumer Reports
More than a year after the Food and Drug Administration definitively called out Consumer Reports for its feckless and dangerous misinformation on tuna, the group continues to peddle the same pseudo-science to mothers and expectant women.
Consumer Reports packaged its latest attack on public health as a “safety alert”, but in fact it’s a warmed over version of the original, discredited story misleadingly presented as novel work.
The latest FDA advice is that pregnant women are advised to eat 2-3 servings of fish per week to help the brain and eye development of children. And fish consumption has been cited as a marquee dietary factor in preventable heart deaths, with Harvard University estimating 84,000 Americans die each year due to a low seafood diet.
Yet Consumer Reports continues to push hypothetical mercury concerns based on unsound research methods, despite the fact that there has never been a case of dietary mercury poisoning in the United States documented in any peer-reviewed medical literature. The FDA found that 56 ounces weekly of albacore tuna—that’s equivalent to 14-22 tuna sandwiches or more than 11 cans or 21 pouches of tuna)—can be eaten by the most sensitive population; pregnant women. For canned light tuna, that amount is closer to 164 ounces weekly.
Consumer Report’s misinformation drove the FDA to take the significant step of speaking out about the magazine’s harmful advice, calling it “limited in that it focuses exclusively on the mercury levels in fish without considering the known positive nutritional benefits attributed to fish…” The FDA statement goes on:
“[A]s a result, the methodology employed by Consumer Reports overestimates the negative effects and overlooks the strong body of scientific evidence published in the last decade.”
This strong body of evidence includes positive findings from the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the American Heart Association, all of which have concluded that the real health risk associated with fish is that people are eating perilously little of it.
Consumer Reports has been wrong before, but in those cases, when it warns readers about certain products—from stereos to toaster ovens, it’s not doing any active harm. What makes their obstinate error on tuna so dangerous is that it actively contributes to an ongoing health crisis, and one that hits our most vulnerable—children and expecting mothers—hardest of all.
A word of warning to reporters who might have come across a press release promoting a little-known study that purports to look at the benefits and risks associated with eating fish. The study claims it finds gaps in the scientific and nutrition understanding of seafood. But that is not in keeping with widely-accepted published, peer-reviewed research. The paper ignores the fact that the FDA recently published a definitive decade-long study on this exact subject that concluded the benefits of seafood far outweigh the risks, while the U.S. Dietary Guidelines came to the exact same conclusion.
A chart included in the piece is designed to illustrate the studies they reviewed. But according to the table that the authors produced there appears to be no positive associations with eating fish (and if there is a positive, there is also a “but” in the association description). Really? Despite decades of definitive studies on the subject this band of intrepid researchers can’t find anything positive to say about fish.
This type of agenda driven, research malpractice should be taken with a grain of salt.
And in case you think “agenda driven, research malpractice” is presumptuous, I offer you this bit of background; the lead auther of the study has openly campaigned as part of an anti-commercial seafood coalition with Mercury Policy Project, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Working Group and Oceana – hardly the voice of independent research.
Time For An Update; Today.com Reports Yesterday’s Science
September 1, 2015
Health & Nutrition Editor
Dear Ms. Fernstrom,
Today.com’s recent article Eating fish 2-3 times a week is recommended: What about every day? enters into and an interesting and important discussion about seafood consumption in this country. By and large Linda Carroll’s reliance on experts guides her towards some useful information that may be able help your readers make informed dietary decisions.
However, her reporting fails by omission in some parts as well. She writes about limits on things like tuna for pregnant women. Keeping up with the latest science is a hallmark of good reporting and the very latest science from the FDA’s Net Effects Report (p.111) clearly concludes that old suggested limits of 6 oz of Albacore tuna per week for pregnant women are out of date. The latest study suggests 56 oz’s is the new most conservative limit. That’s 2 tuna sandwiches every day, every week for her entire pregnancy. If the question is “what about every day?” it is asked and answered.
Currently the FDA estimates pregnant women eat 1.89oz of seafood weekly. As written, “…experts say, eating seafood more than twice a week, for most people, can be healthful…” that applies to tuna and pregnant women. This important development goes unreported.
Likewise, inappropriate hyperbole enters into the piece when she writes, “some experts have suggested that we could empty the seas of fish by 2050 if we increase the amount we eat.” No legitimate fisheries management scientists “suggests” that. In fact the author of the original study that suggested pescatarial Armageddon by 2048 has long since backed off that predication. In fact in 2009 marine ecologist Boris Worm of Dalhousie University published an updated study in the journal Science that found him suggesting he plans to be “hosting a seafood party” in 2048 instead of mourning the loss of all marine ecosystems.
Ms. Carroll poses an interesting question with her headline but did not answer it with the most up to date science. We ask that you update this article now that you have been made aware of the facts.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Vice President, Communications
National Fisheries Institute
Accuracy In Omega-3 Study Reporting Wins The Day
We spend a lot of time in this blog calling out journalists for getting things wrong. And let’s be honest there’s no shortage of agenda-driven reporters who endorse hyperbole and half-truths as standard operating procedure. And still others who are comfortable reading a line or two from a press release and simply printing it without… well… actually doing any reporting.
But today we see Washington Post reporter Lena Sun making some important and salient points in her reporting that suggests she did more than just read a release and craft an embellished headline. In writing about a new Omega-3 study Sun notes that, “Omega 3 is still good for the brain. But ‘fish oil supplements just don’t cut it.” Sun highlights experts who say, “a much better bet for all-around brain and heart health… is eating foods naturally high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon…”
Sun could have erroneously touted the idea that omega-3’s are worthless or falsely claimed that the study was rewriting the, already well researched, book on omega-3’s. But she didn’t, she got it right.
I know it sounds strange to applaud a journalist for doing something she’s supposed to do but how many times have we seen terrible reporting from the likes of the pseudo-journalists at Rodale? So, often that when a reporter gets it right we feel the need to stand up and applaud.