What Happens When False Beliefs Drive Consumer Behavior?
When looking for topics to write about for Talking Nutrition, I first look at what diet and nutrition stories are in the news. A Google News search for “diet” shows a series of headlines which accomplish little in the quest to improve public understanding of nutrition. It seems sometimes that the public understanding of nutrition is based upon the media’s interpretation of nutrition news, which is not always the most accurate. The result is shifts in dietary trends and alterations to food products driven not by science, but by widespread public misconception. Is this a good thing?
Case in point: beverage giant Pepsico announced this week that they will be removing the artificial sweetener aspartame from the Diet Pepsi family of products in response to consumer concerns about the safety of this ingredient. The lost part of this narrative is that decades of research demonstrate that aspartame consumption is perfectly safe. If you don’t believe me, ask the American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, National Library of Medicine, European Food Safety Authority, Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – all have concluded that artificial sweeteners, including aspartame, are safe for human consumption.
Pepsico is hardly the villain here - in fact, I’d argue they’re a victim. Diet soda has gotten a bad rap in the court of public opinion for no other reason than hearsay and perception. This perception has resulted in consequences for Pepsico and other beverage manufacturers: diet soda sales have decreased dramatically in the past decade largely due to unfounded public concern about their safety. But the real loser in this game is the health of the public. In a time where we face a global obesity epidemic, actions that reduce the availability of low/no-calorie food and beverage options is not constructive.
But who could blame consumers for being confused? For the most part, media headlines about diet soda are ridiculously scary (one extreme example: “Having even just one can of diet soda a day is slowly killing you” – what the?!). Typing “diet soda” into Google results in the autofill feature assuming that you’re looking for either “diet soda cancer”, “diet soda dangers”, or “diet soda health risks”. And there are no shortage of TV personalities claiming to be nutrition experts constantly warning us about the “hidden” (read: nonexistent) dangers of diet soda and artificial sweeteners – once again, despite the widespread consensus and overwhelming scientific evidence that artificial sweeteners are safe to consume.
This phenomenon is hardly unique to diet soda: there is no shortage of nutrition topics where public perception does not match scientific consensus. Personally, I would argue dietary supplement use is another nutritional example of widespread public misconception fueled by inaccurate media reports, as evidenced by last week’s widespread media coverage about the dangers of dietary supplements - which turned out to be based on study that doesn’t exist.
So what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to help consumers make sense of all this? My plea to you, nutrition professionals, is to get involved in the conversation. Be an active voice on social media. Help consumers make sense of it all by providing a credible, and most importantly accurate, voice in the debate. Correct false or exaggerated reports in the media. Debunk nutrition myths using hard evidence and try to avoid emotional arguments – be a nutrition agnostic, so to speak. We can only help consumers improve their diets and their health by helping to clear confusion regarding the crazy world we call nutrition.