Is our health threatened by fake news?

You may have noticed that the media is, understandingly, a bit preoccupied with the current political situation in the UK and beyond. Each daily headline and news story seems to feature Brexit gloom and impending election doom with the latest random Trumpism thrown in to really mess with your head. When the murderous dictator of North Korea was described as being a ‘pretty smart cookie’ by the US president, it was difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. At least every now and then, a story about something completely different sneaks onto the news agenda. Of course, if the subject happens to concern itself with nutrition and health my ears begin to prick up like a meerkat in the savannah. Which is exactly how I looked when I heard about the latest threat to our health – diet drinks.

Diet drinks??! What now? I couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything left that could be enjoyed with impunity. Especially since there has been so much focus on reducing the population’s consumption of sugar, fizzy drinks had been all but demonised. Diet drinks, on the other hand, with their sugar-free halo, were being heavily promoted as being a healthier alternative. Even the NHS had recently endorsed diet drinks by publicising a plan to remove all sugary drinks from their hospital vending machines and canteens whilst leaving those that are sugar-free. With the sugar tax looming in the near future, manufacturers are also finally starting to reduce the amount of sugar they use in their products and replace them with artificial sweeteners. Was our health threatened by some new evidence that called into question the safety and use of artificial sweeteners? Or was there something else in fizzy drinks that is even more harmful than sugar? Is it Kendall Jenner? Didn’t she start some sort of supermodel Pepsi protest?? Are we about to be hit with a new kind of Pepsi Challenge?? How has it all gone so terribly wrong for sugar-free?

As a Nutritionist detective, I had no choice but to investigate the source behind the recent scary headlines. The culprit was a recent study carried out by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and Tufts University, Boston. This published study was widely reported in the media as showing that consuming diet drinks triples your risk of stroke and dementia and is far worse for your health than drinking sugary drinks. This sounded pretty shocking but it all sounded quite conclusive. I am sure that many people would not have bothered to read past the dire headlines and they didn’t need to. The same conclusion was repeated in all the newspapers, tv channels, online and in social media. I suspect this may have prompted some smirks of satisfaction from clean eaters and agave syrup aficionados, alike. After all, the news was practically an endorsement of the liberal use of ‘natural’ sweeteners. But oddly enough, the media didn’t really reveal many further details about the findings of the study or offer any explanation as to what it was in the diet drinks that was found to be so harmful to our health.

Of course, it is not as if we even need to drink fizzy drinks, sugar-free or otherwise. Everybody surely knows that drinking water and milk is far better for our health than any soft drink on the market, despite whatever they claim to do on their labels. We are also very aware, nowadays, that consuming too much sugar is very harmful to our bodies and puts us at a serious risk of ill health. However, it is also true that as people still enjoy soft drinks they will continue to go on drinking them. As even the trusted broadsheets featured the diet drink danger story in the nuanced style of tabloids, what is anyone to think? What are parents supposed to do now when they’re faced with the choice between a fizzy drink crammed full of sugar or one without? Which drink is potentially worse for our and our children’s health? Is developing obesity, diabetes or dental caries any worse for us than having a stroke or suffering from dementia? Can’t any parent just have a Diet Coke break anymore without having to consider what’s going to kill them sooner?

Unsurprisingly, like most media flurries, I discovered that the scary claims were only a storm in a teacup because all was not what it seemed. In fact, the conclusions of the study widely quoted by the media were anything but conclusive. The study only concerned a selective group of data, taken from an entirely different, ongoing study – the Framingham Heart Study Offspring – to look for any links between the consumption of soft drinks and dementia and stroke. As you can imagine, using the data from a different study to find new links is not exactly straightforward. Fundamentally, there will be numerous factors and limitations of the study that must be considered throughout as they will inevitably influence the results and the subsequent interpretation. As they were considered in the full interpretation of the study by the authors, you would expect the media to also consider them before they come up with a snappy headline.

But incredibly, they didn’t because despite the negative headlines, the study did not actually show any causal link between the consumption of diet drinks and a risk of stroke or dementia. Yes, you did read that right. So rather than being a new threat to our health, diet drinks still remain the ‘healthier’ choice of fizzy drinks. Although, I wonder how many people realise this? I certainly didn’t see any headlines blaring this out. Sadly, this isn’t the first time that tactics more akin to marketing are used to draw our attention to a health story that isn’t really newsworthy. After all, ‘Diet drinks still ok’ doesn’t really catch anyone’s eye and that includes me. But I wonder if it is getting worse. Have we been bombarded with so many bewildering political headlines of late that we have become primed and ready to believe ‘fake’ health news, too? Perhaps living in uncertain times makes it even more difficult to tell when stories about our health are slightly spurious. Or has nothing changed and as always, we will carry on believing the news that suits us when it comes to health and nutrition?

As we begin the countdown to the UK election and subsequent Brexit negotiations to unravel, only time will tell if any nutrition health threats manage to steal the limelight away again.  For now, I am probably safe to retreat from my meerkat stance as I expect the media to once again focus on all things political. However, if another extraordinary nutrition claim were to emerge again, my advice would be to keep calm and carry on as there is always much more to a story than what is written in black and white. And like Trumpisms, sometimes headlines only represent a warped sense of reality for which you can only shake your head and think, sad.

After reading some of the latest election headlines from France, I managed to come up with an easy recipe that will distract you with its yumminess. Unsurprisingly, it does not involve a fizzy drink but features sweetcorn. These Thai sweetcorn and spring onion fritters are so simple it makes the perfect go-to recipe when you arrive home hungry and the cupboards are pretty bare.

Corn fritters blog

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