Dear Food Doc: I try to pay attention to what health experts say about diet and food. But I get conflicting messages and am not sure whom I should trust. Any advice?
Answer: Every day there are reports recommending what we should eat or not eat. A good example are the dozens of diet books warning us about the evils of carbohydrates. Yet, at the same time, we are told to eat more fiber-rich foods.
There is also a long list of specific ingredients we supposedly should not eat. Although many consumers would be hard-pressed to define what lactose, gluten and GMOs are, plenty of people are convinced they should be avoided.
So where do consumers go to learn about food and nutrition? Dr. Oz is a popular choice (over a million daily viewers of his TV show), as is the Food Babe (over 100,000 Twitter followers). Then there is Google, which gets 60,000 hits every second. Undoubtedly, many of us are seeking answers to food questions.
But are these the best sources of information on food and health?
Admittedly, there is a lot of information. This makes it difficult for consumers to distinguish credible information from misinformation. In fact, improving science literacy is both a UNL and a national priority.
Consider two of the most important contemporary food issues -- climate change and genetically modified foods (GMOs).
According to NASA.gov, almost all climate scientists agree that global-warming trends are due to human activities. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Chemical Society and every major U.S. scientific society and 200 international organizations concur. So does the U.S. Department of Defense.
Climate change is already affecting coffee, cocoa and wine. Yields for commodity crops like wheat and corn are expected to decrease over the next decade. Plant diseases and pests are on the increase. This will raise prices for consumers and affect global security.
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Yet, a recent Pew Research Center survey reported that 40% of Americans consider climate change as a minor threat or not a threat at all.
Interestingly, nearly the same consensus exists on the safety of GMOs. The American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization all say GMOs are safe. GMOs might even help address climate change challenges.
Nonetheless, another Pew survey from 2018 reported that half of Americans consider GMO foods to be dangerous to health.
If the best-trained scientists from around the world examine the data and reach consensus on climate change and GMOs, why do half of consumers remain unconvinced?
Ironically, if one sought a diagnosis for a disease or even a simple car repair, wouldn’t most of us accept the consensus coming from the top experts?
Why, instead, do so many of us apparently trust the internet blogs or social media?
Perhaps it’s because humans tend to seek out and accept information that is more consistent with their own personal belief system or biases, regardless of facts or evidence. This may explain why many consumers trust the scientists on climate change but then consider the same body of scientists to be somehow wrong on GMOs.
This phenomenon, called confirmation bias, has a profound effect on our eating behaviors. If a nutrition expert, no matter how credible, recommends cutting back on foods we like, then we simply follow another nutritionist. After all, we want our cake and eat it, too.