Nutrition Accuracy in Magazines
Stories about food, nutrition, diet, and public health appear almost daily via media venues. There's no shortage of information available to the public though a significant proportion of it either contains inaccuracies or represents the views of vested interests. According to the American Dietetic Association's Nutrition and You: Trends 2002 survey and data from the Food Marketing Institute, consumers report that they received the majority of their nutrition information from media sources such as magazines (47 percent), television (34 percent), and books and newspapers (28 percent each). Other important sources of nutrition information include physicians, the Internet, and product labels. Only 13 percent of consumers claimed their nutrition information came from a registered dietitian (RD).
Survey of Popular Magazines
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is a nonprofit, consumer education association. Since 1982 ACSH has conducted surveys to determine which popular magazines provide the most accurate information related to diet, nutrition, and health issues. Not all magazines are surveyed each time. The latest survey covered magazines published in 2004-05, ranking one as "excellent," fifteen as "good," and four as "fair" (as sources of nutrition information). As a group, consumer-oriented/homemaking magazines outrank others in the quality of their nutrition reporting.
For the tenth annual survey, ACSH judges, experts in food science and nutrition, rated randomly selected articles from twenty popular magazines, and based ratings upon three criteria: provision of factual information, objective presentation of information, and dissemination of sound nutritional advice. Consumer Reports, Glamour, Ladies' Home Journal, and Shape earned scores placing them in the "excellent/near excellent" category. Twelve others: Child, Parents, Woman's Day, Cooking Light, Fitness, Redbook, Self, Good Housekeeping, Health, Runner's World, Better Homes and Gardens, and Prevention, earned scores in the "good" category. Reader's Digest, Men's Health, Cosmopolitan, and Muscle and Fitness, earned "fair" ratings. The last group's composite score was lower because it included three magazines directed at men, which are especially prone to inaccurate information.
Recommendations for the Publications and Consumers
One positive trend is that many magazine articles now cite references. However, there is still the tendency of magazines to bundle together several small pieces of nutrition information into one article (oversimplifying complex topics). ACSH recommends that magazine editors have nutrition articles reviewed for factual accuracy by a registered dietitian (RD)/qualified health professional prior to publication and consumers should not make drastic changes in their diets based upon advice from a magazine articles but consult a qualified nutrition professional for individualized dietary advice.
The International Food Information Council reported on an analysis of the accuracy of selected nutrition-related news stories reported from 2000 to 2005. Common forms of inaccuracy found included the following:
- Generalizing a research study's results to a broad population not represented by the study
- Exaggerating the size of an effect (of a food or dietary pattern/behavior/change)
- Using a single piece of information (taken out of context) to predict future events.
Articles on nutrition often fail to note the quantity and frequency a food should be eaten or to whom the advice applies. The public's understanding of nutrition science CAN BE enhanced when journalistic reporting complete, accurate, balanced, offers a healthful skepticism, provides practical consumer advice, and references evidence-based science.
Check for credentials of nutrition experts
The most widely recognized and credible nutrition experts are registered dietitians (RDs). RDs have obtained the appropriate education and training, and have earned their credentials through the Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE) of the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Magazines that have RDs as part of their advisory board and/or quote ADA spokespeople lend credibility to their publication. Note that some medical advice columns, cooking features, and advertisements often communicate nutrition advice and can spread misinformation. Celebrities, fitness experts, psychologists, and others (without legitimate nutrition-related credentials) are frequent sources for interviews and testimonials. Giving scientifically unfounded testimonials about the benefits of a product or nutritional practice can be potentially harmful. Magazine articles are a widely used and easily accessible source of nutrition information, but they do not take the place of advice given by a credible dietetics professional, who is prepared to provide sound, science-based nutrition information.
Food for Thought VI: Reporting of Diet, Nutrition, and Food Safety. (2005). International Food Information Council. http://ific.nisgroup.com/research/fftres.cfm
Goldberg JP. 2000. Nutrition communication in the 21st century: What are the challenges and how can we meet them? Nutrition 16:644-646.
Jarratt ,J, and JB Mahaffie. 2002. Key Trends Affecting the Dietetics Profession and the American Dietetic Association. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 102 (12): 1821-1839.
Rowe SB. 2002. Communicating Science-Based Food and Nutrition Information. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 132(8): S2481-S2482.
Science Group Ranks Popular Magazines by Quality of Nutrition Info. (2007). American Council on Science and Health. http://www.nurseweek.com/news/98-4/13c.html
Wansink, Brian. 2006. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Food and Nutrition Misinformation. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 106:601-607.