Archive for May, 2010

Swamped with work again. If only Fat Head had the kind of exposure in the USA that it’s had in, say, New Zealand, I might be happily unemployed right now. Oh well. While I’m busy trying to wrap up my latest project, here’s an interesting lecture on sugar and fructose. Not a whole lot of new information, but it’s good to be reminded why cookies and ice cream aren’t worth the temporary pleasure.

Some interesting points: 

I tend to gain weight on starches and I don’t get along with wheat, but lectures like this one have me convinced that starch is clearly not as damaging as sugar.  If you’re not going to stick to a low-carb diet, at least avoid the sweet stuff.

I’ve read in several articles that only a small fraction of the population is salt-sensitive.  The rest of us can salt our food to our heart’s content and the salt won’t give us high blood pressure.  Dr. Johnson explains where what could make the difference:  once fructose has damaged the kidneys (apparently through producing high levels of uric acid), salt does raise blood pressure.  So don’t eat sugar and enjoy your salt … even while the FDA works to limit the salt in packaged foods and doesn’t say diddly about sugar.

How many times have we talked about how the “gluttony and sloth” crowd has it backwards?  That is, they say we gain weight because we’re lazy and eat too much, whereas people like Gary Taubes have said we become lazy and eat more because we’re gaining weight.  As Dr. Johnson explains here, fructose affects the appetite and promotes weight gain, and at the same time it depletes energy.  Who the heck wants to go for a jog when it feels like work just to stand up?

Perhaps we should show clips from this lecture next to those stupid “Sweet Surprise” ads put out by the Corn Refiners Association, then see who people believe.


Comments 21 Comments »

My next-door-neighbor is a lawn guy.  I see him all the time from my office window, puttering around in his yard … seeding, fertilizing, watering if we haven’t had rain for awhile, and of course, mowing and trimming.  Not surprisingly, he’s got a healthy lawn, which anyone can tell from the rich, green color of the grass.

I’m not a lawn guy.  Never have been.  I spent most of my adult life living in apartment buildings, where the lawn (if there was one) was the landlord’s problem.  We rent a house now, so I’ve finally got the lawn, but I still have no desire to put any work into it.  I pay a guy to ride his lawnmower around the place, and that’s the extent of my involvement.  No seeding, no fertilizing, no watering.  The grass isn’t just grass; it’s a motley mix of grass, clover and weeds, with a corresponding mix of hues.  During dry spells, there are brownish patches.

So as you might expect, my lawn isn’t going to win the local association’s “Most Beautiful Lawn” award anytime soon.  (Yes, they have one.)  That doesn’t matter to me, but I wouldn’t mind having a nice, healthy lawn.  So after comparing my neighbor’s lawn to mine, I’ve figured out a solution:  I’m going to hire a company to spray-paint my grass the same color as his.  Then my lawn will be just as healthy.

The company I have in mind is Merck.  I’m picking them because they apparently believe that since people with high HDL are less prone to heart disease, they can prevent heart attacks by developing a drug that artificially jacks up HDL.  Riiiiiight.  Paint the grass green, and the lawn is healthy.  And if I have a mechanic tinker with my Mitsubishi so it produces exactly the same amount of exhaust as a Maserati, it’ll do 180 on the highway.

What’s amazing is that Merck is jumping in where Pfizer already failed, as the Wall Street Journal reported in this article:

It’s been nearly three and a half years since Pfizer abruptly pulled the plug on its $800 million effort to develop torcetrapib after the HDL-cholesterol raising drug was linked to a higher risk of death in a 15,000-patient study.

The disastrous outcome contributed to Pfizer’s stunning decision in September 2008 to sharply curtail early-stage research for drugs for cardiovascular disease, a franchise the company has owned for more than a decade with the blockbuster statin Lipitor and the blood pressure pill Norvasc (now generic).

Pfizer ended its clinical trial three years early because the death rate among the subjects taking torcetrapib plus a statin was 60% higher than in the group that only took a statin.    (Since the patent on Lipitor will run out soon, Pfizer was hoping to create a new miracle combo drug.)  The higher death rate, by the way, included a higher rate of fatal heart attacks.  Gee, you’d almost think something was wrong with the Lipid Hypothesis.

And here’s the interesting part:  the drug did exactly what it was supposed to do.  In early phases of clinical testing, Pfizer breathlessly reported that the miracle combo boosted HDL by 44 to 66 percent, while lowering LDL by 41 to 60 percent.  Wowzers!  … high HDL, low LDL.  Your doctor would read your drug-induced cholesterol score and happily sign a declaration that you’ll probably live to be 100.  Then a couple of years later, your family could take that declaration, fold it up neatly, and put it in the pocket of your burial suit.

The point is, high HDL and low LDL don’t confer benefits in and of themselves.  It’s far more likely that they’re markers for good cardiovascular health, not the cause.  (In the case of low LDL, it’s not even a good marker.  See this post for more on that topic.)  Pushing markers up or down with drugs is nothing more than treating a lab score.  And as Pfizer found out, the drugs can produce nasty side effects that far outweigh any benefits.

My HDL on my last lab test was 64.  Combined with a score of 70 for my triglycerides, it makes for an impressive lab result.  But it’s not those numbers that are keeping me healthy; it’s the diet that produced those numbers.  A diet rich in natural fats raises HDL.  A diet low in sugar and starch reduces triglycerides.  A diet rich in natural fats and low in sugar is also a diet that’s more likely to keep blood sugar under control, and less likely to produce the inflammation that can damage arteries.

As I’ve said before, I don’t expect pharmaceutical companies to abandon the drug business and start recommending a change in diet.  That’s not why they exist … and some of the drugs they’ve produced have been modern wonders.

Unfortunately, it’s the cholesterol-manipulating drugs that have been raking in the big bucks for the past 20 years, so of course Merck is going to jump on the HDL bandwagon.  Prepare yourself for the press releases coming down the pike over the next few years.  First you’ll see headlines about how Merck’s new drug raises HDL by 90%.  Then you’ll read about clinical results that are “inconclusive.” Finally, Merck will quietly put out a release giving the pharmaceutical version of “The operation was a success, but unfortunately the patient died.”

Then I’ll hire some of their former employees to paint my lawn.


Comments 23 Comments »

A reader posted a link to this slide show and lecture.  There’s a  LOT of biochemistry in the lecture and it’s 49 minutes long, so if you decide to watch it, congratulations — but you may want to grab a cup of coffee first.

View more webinars from Joel Topf.

The brief synopsis:  there’s good scientific evidence that hypertension is largely the result of too much uric acid, and elevated uric acid is largely caused by (drum roll, please) … TOO MUCH FRUCTOSE! 

So let’s think about this … the FDA is demanding that the food industry reformulate their recipes (at no small expense) to drastically reduce the sodium content.  This is in spite of several studies in which drastically reducing sodium showed little effect on blood pressure.  And of course, it’s likely that people will respond to low-sodium foods by adding salt. 

Meanwhile, the federal government continues to subsidize corn, just in case the Great Depression ever comes back.  Thanks to those subsidies, high-fructose corn syrup is dirt cheap, which is why it’s in a gazillion food products and also why our consumption of fructose has skyrocketed since 1970.  If the federal government really wanted to encourage better health, they could stop demanding that the food industry produce low-sodium foods and drop the corn subsidies instead … but that won’t happen because it would mean saving taxpayer dollars instead of spending them.

@#$%ing brilliant …

Hat tip to Gwen for the link.


Comments 13 Comments »

My last post was a fictional Q & A explaining how to bias a news story.  It was sarcasm, of course; I don’t actually believe reporters sit down and plan out how to slant the news.  The slant is the natural result of their world view, a view that is reinforced by virtue of working in an intellectual echo chamber.

As John Stossel explained in one of his books, when he was just another ABC reporter whose stories fit the cookie-cutter template — regulations are always good because the government must save us from evil industries — he got along fine with his peers.  He won 19 Emmy awards. Then he had a libertarian awakening and began to file stories questioning the wisdom and necessity of many regulations, sometimes even highlighting the negative unintended consequences … at which point he found himself becoming an outcast who had to fight to get his stories on the air.  Many never were aired.  And as he explained a few years back, “Once I started applying the same skepticism to government, I stopped winning awards.”

If it seems I’m a bit obsessed with biased, pro-regulation reporting on health issues, it’s only because I’m a bit obsessed with biased, pro-regulation reporting on health issues.  The failure to question pronouncements by the FDA, USDA and NIH as rigorously as, say, pronouncements by the Pentagon or CIA is journalistic malpractice.  The consequences are real.  After the McGovern Committee’s recommendations were released, echo-chamber reporting about the virtues of the Food Pyramid and the evils of saturated fat gave us the low-fat, high-carb diet craze.  You know how well that turned out. 

And as Gary Taubes recounted in Good Calories, Bad Calories, there were plenty of doctors and scientists around who vehemently opposed the low-fat diet advice.  But their opinions rarely made the news.  The template had already been etched.

Even when government regulations aren’t actually harmful, they run the risk of misdirecting our efforts.  If calorie-count menus aren’t the cure for obesity — which seems likely, considering that Americans 50 years ago were leaner on average despite a near-total lack of nutrition labels — then requiring those menus (which is actually part of the health-care “reform” bill) is a waste of time and money.  If not a step backwards, it’s at best a step sideways.  It doesn’t bring us any closer to putting our foot on the real cause.

Likewise, if the FDA orders the food industry to incur the expense of reformulating their recipes to reduce sodium and it turns out that the real cause of hypertension is elevated blood glucose or a lack of potassium or both, then all we’ve done is taken another step sideways … and eaten a lot of tasteless food while doing it.  Or we might end up with more high-fructose corn syrup or other additives in packaged foods to replace the palatability that salt currently provides.

Worse, as Dr. Michael Aldeman pointed out, we will be conducting yet another uncontrolled experiment on the public.  We may realize 20 years from now that restricting sodium caused more harm than good, as happened when we switched from natural animal fats to chemically-extracted seed oils in the food supply.

So I don’t really care if the health reporters I’ve criticized are hard-working and sincere.  They’re not doing their jobs.  They’re not asking the right questions.  They’re offering up government recommendations as evidence, instead of examining the evidence themselves.

McGovern was hard-working and sincere too.  But he was also biased.  His doctor assured him that low-fat, high-carb diets were indeed the way to go, and McGovern trusted his doctor … so his committee basically ignored the testimony of prominent researchers like Robert Levy, Pete Ahrens and John McMichael, who all testified that it was irresponsible to recommend drastic dietary changes without waiting for conclusive research.  If you’ve seen Fat Head, you know how McGovern replied to such criticisms:  “Senators don’t have the luxury that a research scientist does of waiting until every last shred of evidence is in.”

In other words, he’d already selected his neat, dramatic narrative:  the meat, egg and diary industries are killing us with their fatty, cholesterol-laden foods.  He tossed out any information that didn’t fit the narrative.  If he hadn’t gone into politics, he would’ve made a first-rate health reporter.

So with that long and winding preamble out of the way, here’s my version of the Los Angeles Times story about the FDA’s efforts to reduce the salt content of food.  My version is equally biased, but also equally factual.  The only fictional aspects are the quotes; I’m not going to track down researchers to get quotes for a bogus news story, so I’m paraphrasing their written statements.  The point here is to demonstrate that two articles, while both factual, can leave the reader with completely different impressions.

FDA Calls For Salt Cutbacks

By Tom Naughton
Fat Head News Network

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday announced a gradual but potentially expensive effort to reduce the amount of salt Americans consume in a bid to combat high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes. The FDA’s efforts began by calling for food-industry cutbacks, which the agency labeled as “voluntary” while simultaneously threatening to impose new regulations if the industry doesn’t comply.

The FDA’s decision was applauded by government officials and liberal activist groups, but criticized by scientists, who have long pointed to a lack of convincing evidence linking sodium intake to medical problems.

Sodium intake is “simply too high to be safe,” said Dr. Jane E. Henney, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and chairwoman of a government committee that produced the report calling for sodium restrictions. “Clearly, salt is essential…. We need it. But the level we’re taking in right now is far beyond the maximal levels we need.”

The “maximal level” recommended by the federal government is roughly one teaspoon of salt per day, which the average American exceeds by nearly 50%.  However, scientists question that recommendation.

“The theory that excess salt leads to heart and strokes has no long-term studies to back it up,” said Dr. Barry Groves, a science writer with a PhD in nutrition science.  “There have been 58 major studies on the matter.  They simply don’t support the current recommendation to reduce salt intake.”

Dr. Paul Rosch, a professor at the New York Medical College, agrees.  “In one of the largest studies ever to examine the link between dietary sodium and hypertension, the group with the lowest salt intake actually suffered from above-average rates of hypertension.  Meanwhile, in the group with the highest salt intake, high blood pressure was relatively rare.”

Other studies also suggest the level of sodium reduction demanded by the FDA would produce few public health benefits.  A recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, noted that even extreme reductions in sodium intake have failed to prevent hypertension and heart disease in clinical trials.

Michael Jacobson, director of The Center for Science in the Public Interest, praised the FDA’s action and called for an immediate clampdown on the food industry.  CSPI, a vegetarian activist group that has warned consumers about the dangers of foods ranging from cantaloupes to wine, sued the FDA in 2005 in an attempt to force the agency to re-classify salt as an additive.  The reclassification would make salt subject to federal regulation, which CSPI has demanded for years.

The head of the salt lobby blasted the FDA’s efforts as unwarranted and overly broad.  “It’s not scientifically sound,” said Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute. “They’re talking about some very drastic reductions. They could be harming people.”

Dr. Michael Aldeman, a researcher who has conducted numerous studies on hypertension, is likewise concerned.  “This would amount to a large, uncontrolled experiment with the public as subjects,” he said.  “I’m concerned about the unintended consequences.”


The most common defense against the charge of biased reporting is something like “How can it be biased if all we do is report the facts?”  Well, all I did is report the facts.  But my selection of facts tells a completely different story.  That’s why bias matters.  Reporters are taught to be skeptical of their sources.  Readers should also be skeptical of the reporters.


Comments 11 Comments »

Student: Mr. Naughton — I’m a journalism student who will graduate next week.  I’ve noticed that on both of your blogs, you frequently complain about biased reporting. In fact, you inspired me to examine the news more critically, which led me to conclude that bias is not only rampant, but may in fact be a job requirement.  Since you were a journalism major yourself, I hope you’re willing to give me some advice:  namely, can you share some pointers on how to write biased news stories?  In this economy, with so few jobs available for new graduates, I could really use an edge.

Fat Head: I graduated in the midst of the 1981-82 recession and know exactly how you feel.  I’d be happy to help to you develop the necessary bias in your reporting, but first let’s distinguish between strategy and tactics.  A strategy is plan for achieving a goal.  Tactics are the methods you employ to implement the strategy.  Your goal is success in journalism.  You asked for pointers, and we’ll get into those shortly, but those are tactics.  To succeed as a biased reporter, you must first understand the strategy, which is:  

1) Whenever you tackle complex issues, you will rewrite them as neat dramatic narratives that
2) happen to be exactly the neat dramatic narratives that most appeal to your fellow journalists — especially editors and other gatekeepers.

Student: I think I may have a problem with that.

Fat Head: Look, if you care about your career, you’ll forget all that nonsense they taught you about ethics and objectivity and–

Student: No, no, no, that’s not a problem.  I just don’t understand how to create neat dramatic narratives.

Fat Head: Oh, well, it’s a mostly matter of selection.  If you’re a diligent reporter looking into an important story, you’ll probably find all kinds of complexities and contradictions.  That’s not what your editors want.  So when you sit down to write, first come up with a Hollywood-style pitch line — the whole story in one sentence.  Then throw out anything that doesn’t fit. That’s your first tactic.

Student: Can you give me an example?

Fat Head: Sure, I remember one that had me screaming at the TV.  CBS sent a reporter to look into why California went broke.  The entire story focused on two things:  the national economic recession and Proposition 13, which put a cap on property taxes.  I was living in California at the time and knew that in spite of Proposition 13, California still had higher per-capita property taxes than most other states, that Proposition 13 had been around since 1978 and didn’t cause budget shortfalls in the ’80s or ’90s, that Californians paid more in combined taxes than people in 45 other states, and that in spite of the recession, the state’s tax revenues during the previous four years had actually increased by 25 percent, while spending went up 40 percent.

But the CBS reporter realized the neat dramatic narrative that would most please his fellow journalists was “Cap on taxes produces budget crisis,” so he didn’t mention a single one of those facts.  And just to make sure nobody missed the narrative, he ended the report with, “Well, Dan, as long as Californians decide to set their own tax rates instead of trusting their legislators to do it for them, they may be facing budget shortfalls for a long time.”  Dan looked delighted.  I’m guessing that reporter got a raise.

Student: Wow … that is a neat dramatic narrative.  But I’m not interested in reporting on economic issues.  I’m more interested in public policy issues, especially regarding nutrition and health.  That’s why I read your blog.

Fat Head: Excellent … in that case, you only need to remember a single dramatic narrative to guide all your reporting. Write this down and put it next to your keyboard.  No matter what specific issue you’re covering, the narrative is:  HEROIC GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS TRY TO SAVE HELPLESS AMERICANS — GREEDY CAPITALISTS OPPOSED.

Student:  I love it!  Good versus evil.  Can you teach me to write that story?

Fat Head:  Easily.  Let’s take a real example from the Los Angeles Times and show how it’s done.  Read this story about the FDA’s effort to reduce the salt content in food. Then we’ll discuss the tactics employed to create the narrative.

Student: Okay, I read it.  Seems factual to me.

Fat Head: That’s the beauty of it.  It’s factual, so it looks like an objective article.  But it’s also been constructed to create a neat dramatic narrative.  Look at the opening paragraphs:

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday announced a gradual but potentially far-reaching effort to reduce the amount of salt Americans consume in a bid to combat high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and other health problems that have soared to near-epidemic proportions.

The FDA’s efforts will begin by seeking voluntary cutbacks by the food industry. But ultimately, the agency may resort to regulating acceptable levels of sodium in food and beverages.

Right away, we’ve established a hero with a noble cause.  The FDA is going after the evil food industry to save helpless Americans from heart disease and strokes.

Student: But isn’t that the FDA’s intention?

Fat Head: Bingo!  There’s your next tactic:  when you are reporting on government health agencies, always judge them by their intentions.  Never, ever wonder if their actions will actually produce the desired results.  If the government demands calorie counts on restaurant menus to reduce obesity, just assume the result would be a reduction in obesity.  Don’t ask if the nutrition labels the FDA imposed in the 1990s reduced obesity, as the FDA predicted at the time.  Don’t ask if people who eat lunch at McDonald’s will actually order lower-calorie meals if they’re confronted with calorie counts.  And if you do, for heaven’s sake, don’t even think of asking if those same people might just eat more later in the day because they’re hungrier.  So if we’re talking about salt, then —

Student: Wait a minute … I see!  The FDA is demanding that food manufacturers put less salt in processed food, but we don’t really know if that will ultimately reduce heart disease and strokes, because —

Fat Head: Stop thinking! I’m trying to help you here!

Student: Sorry.

Fat Head: It’s okay. You’re right.  We don’t know if putting less salt in packaged food will lead to people eating less of it overall, and we certainly don’t know if eating less salt will reduce heart disease and strokes.  But we’ll come back to that.  Look at this next paragraph:

The FDA’s decision was applauded by public health advocacy groups and scientists, who have long pointed up the link between high salt intake and a host of serious – and costly – medical problems.

Student: I see it.  It’s that “link” thing.  You’ve mentioned many times that associations don’t prove anything.

Fat Head: Correct, but that’s not the tactic I’m pointing out here.  It’s more about establishing the narrative.   Remember, the first part of the narrative is HEROIC GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS TRY TO SAVE HELPLESS AMERICANS.  So how do you prove to your audience that the government officials are heroes?  Why, you just tell them that health advocacy groups and scientists are applauding.

Student: But that seems like a factual statement.

Fat Head: Read it again carefully. The decision was applauded by “scientists.”  Really?  All scientists?

Student: Oh, I see …

Fat Head: That’s the tactic.  Arrange the narrative so it appears that all the good and smart people are on the government’s side.  That means you write “scientists say” or “scientists support” instead of “some scientists say” or “some scientists support.”  Bernard Goldberg, a former CBS reporter, described the process brilliantly in his book Bias:   you call around for quotes, but then only use the quotes from the experts who support your narrative.

Student: Now wait a minute.  In journalism school, I was taught to present both sides of an issue.

Fat Head: So was I.  The trick is in how you do it.  Take a look:

But it was also criticized by some industry groups, and some conservative political leaders denounced it as another government assault on personal freedom.

I noticed this tactic years ago:  When you need to quote someone from the other side, make sure it’s someone your audience doesn’t like or doesn’t trust.  So, an industry group is criticizing the FDA?  Who the heck is going to trust some industry group?  They’re not health experts; they’re self-interested capitalists. The whole purpose of quoting them at all is to set up the GREEDY CAPITALISTS OPPOSED part of the narrative.

But the head of the salt lobby blasted efforts to curb salt consumption as unwarranted and overly broad. “It’s not scientifically sound,” said Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute. “They’re talking about some very drastic reductions. They could be harming people.”

So the salt lobby doesn’t like the proposed regulations. Who would’ve predicted otherwise?  Compare that paragraph to these:

The 14-member panel’s findings, more than a year in the making, come on the heels of a welter of studies tallying the health and economic costs of excessive salt intake.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health predicted that, if dietary sodium consumption declined to the levels recommended in the 2005 federal guidelines, some 90,000 deaths could be averted yearly.

A Rand Corp. study published in September estimated that reducing American sodium intake to recommended levels could save $18 billion yearly in treatment for hypertension, stroke, renal disease and heart failure associated with excessive salt consumption.

“There is now overwhelming evidence that we must treat sodium reduction as a critical public health priority,” said Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Harvard School of Public Health’s department of nutrition.

So we’ve been objective and factual and presented both sides, right?  Heroic government regulators and scientists versus the salt lobby and conservative politicians we don’t trust anyway. Very neat and tidy.

Student: I don’t get the part about not trusting conservative political leaders.  Isn’t a large percent of the audience conservative?

Fat Head: You’re assuming the readers and viewers at home are the intended audience.  Remember, your narratives must appeal to other journalists. A successful career in journalism requires thinking exactly like your peers.  That’s why, as Goldberg points out, conservatives are always clearly labeled as conservatives in news stories… a conservative think-tank contends that … a conservative group is opposing the regulation, etc.  The message is:  here’s what the other side says, but you should be suspicious of them because they’re a bunch of right-wingers.

Meanwhile, you can read the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times for years and never see a reference to “a liberal think-tank.”  I’ve seen members of pro-government, pro-regulation liberal groups simply referred to as “experts” or “researchers” in countless news stories.  Even the vegan wackos at the Center for Science in the Public Interest are usually introduced as “consumer advocates.”  Well, gee whiz, who the heck wants to oppose good people who are just looking out for us?

Student: “Us” being all those helpless Americans?

Fat Head: Indeed.  Here’s how helpless we are:

The institute declared that expeditious “regulatory action is necessary” because efforts to educate the public about the perils of excessive dietary salt and voluntary sodium-cutting efforts by industry have failed …

Now, a reporter not trying to pound a complex story into a neat dramatic narrative might just stop and wonder if the reason “efforts to educate the public about the perils of excessive dietary salt” have failed is that people like salt and choose salty foods on purpose.  She might even wonder if the public’s reaction to “voluntary” sodium-cutting by the food industry will be to reach for the salt shaker whenever they taste a low-salt food.  But that would raise pesky questions about whether the FDA’s actions will actually reduce salt consumption.  And worse, it would undermine the HELPLESS AMERICANS part of the narrative.  Which leads to our next tactic.  Here’s an example:

On a daily basis, Americans consume almost 50% more than the roughly one teaspoon of salt recommended as a maximum by the federal government’s 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, according to the institute’s report.

Student: Okay, we so consume too much salt.  I don’t see the tactic being used here.

Fat Head: The tactic is this:  in order to present government regulators as heroes saving helpless Americans, always cite government recommendations as gospel.  You need to create the impression that the evil food industry is overdosing us on purpose, so just breathlessly report that “this double cheeseburger contains more sodium and saturated fat than the federal government recommends for an entire day!”  Never, ever ask if those recommendations are based on real science.

Student: You mean the salt recommendations aren’t based on science?

Fat Head: I told you not to ask that.

Student: Sorry, but –

Fat Head: Okay, since you’re in still in training here … no, they’re not based on science.  Neither are the recommendations about fat intake.

Remember our neat little narrative?  The food industry versus the FDA, which is being applauded by all the scientists?   Well, I don’t have access to the same resources as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, but it only took me about five minutes to come up with quotes like these:

The INTERSALT researchers conveniently neglected to mention that the population of the four countries responsible for skewing the total figures to coincide with their preconceived conclusion also had less stress, less obesity, ate far less processed foods and much more fiber from fruits and vegetables. They also tended to die at younger ages from other causes and often too soon to have developed any significant degree of coronary atherosclerosis.

When the available data from the other more civilized societies was reviewed, statisticians found that as sodium intake increased there was a decrease in blood pressure, just the opposite of what had been reported. The lowest salt intake seemed to be in a subgroup of Chicago black males despite the fact that their incidence of hypertension was above average. Conversely, high blood pressure was relatively rare in participants from China’s Tianjin Province even though this study group had the highest salt intake.
— Dr. Paul J. Rosch
President, The American Institute of Stress
Clinical Professor of Medicine
New York Medical College

In a meta-analysis of 56 clinical trials done since 1980 in people with normal blood pressure, extreme salt reduction offered little benefit.
— GRAUDAL ET AL., Journal of the American Medical Association

The salt hypothesis has no large-scale studies to back it up. Fifty-eight trials published between 1966 and the end of 1997 were reviewed to estimate the effects of reduced sodium intake on systolic and diastolic blood pressure, particularly as in recent years the debate has been extended by studies indicating that reducing sodium intake has adverse effects. They found that reducing salt intake did reduce blood pressure slightly, but that it increased LDL cholesterol, the so-called ‘bad’ cholesterol. They conclude that ‘These results do not support a general recommendation to reduce sodium intake.’ Many thousands of papers have been published in the medical journals over the years which failed to show any benefit from reducing salt intake. These are not mentioned.
— Dr. Barry Groves

The most slender piece of evidence in favor of a salt-blood pressure link is welcomed as further proof of the link, while failure to find such evidence is explained away.
–Dr. Olaf Simpson, Otago Medical School, New Zealand

This observational study does not justify any particular dietary recommendation. Specifically, these results do not support current recommendations for routine reduction of sodium consumption.
— Dr. Michael Aldeman, from his study published in The Lancet

Dr. Aldeman, by the way, has characterized drastically reducing the salt content of food as “an uncontrolled experiment” and said he’s concerned about the unintended consequences. I could go on, but you get the idea.  It’s the CBS tactic … only present the facts that support your narrative.  The reporter could’ve dug up any of these quotes, along with dozens of studies that concluded reducing salt is worthless, but that wouldn’t fit the narrative.  Now it’s not just the evil food industry that’s against restricting salt, it’s other scientists as well.  You don’t want to risk leaving the audience confused.

Student: Well, most newspaper readers aren’t that scientifically literate.

Fat Head: I’m talking about the other journalists.

Student: I keep forgetting.

Fat Head: As for the audience at home, you certainly don’t want them thinking that perhaps the government is wasting a lot of time and taxpayer dollars trying to force them to eat less salt for no good reason.

Student: I think I’m getting the hang of it. The strategy is to create a neat dramatic narrative. The tactics are to select only the facts that support the narrative, establish the government regulators as heroes by suggesting all the scientists and health advocates are on their side, always judge the regulators by their intentions instead of speculating about the actual results, quote government recommendations as gospel even if they’re not based on scientific evidence, present the opposing viewpoint by quoting people the audience doesn’t trust anyway, and portray Americans as helpless victims of evil industries who are overdosing them on purpose.  Thanks, Mr. Naughton.   If I keep all this in mind, I may just wind up with a job as a journalist after all.

Fat Head: And if that doesn’t happen, you can always work in Hollywood.


Comments 21 Comments »

Check it out.  The reporter seems resistant to the idea that anything could be wrong with giving kids juice boxes, and of course we had to hear from the Corn Refiners Association and a doctor who works for them.  But seeing Dr. Lustig on national TV is a real step forward.

I always find it interesting when doctors explain that we’re becoming fatter simply because we’re eating more.  Shouldn’t that explanation immediately spark another question … namely, WHY ARE WE EATING MORE?  Doesn’t appetite have something to do with food intake?  Shouldn’t we be looking for the reason our appetites have gone out of control?  As Gary Taubes pointed out, blaming obesity on eating too much is a bit like saying the cause of alcoholism is drinking too much.

Dr. Lustig says fructose messes up our leptin levels and makes us hungrier, so we eat too much.  Dr. Corn Refiner’s reply is that we eat too much.  That doesn’t even qualify as a retort if you think about it.


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