Contradictory Nutrition News Creates Consumer Confusion

Release Date: January 28, 2014 | By Valerie DeBenedette, HBNS Contributing Writer
Research Source: Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives


  • People who were exposed to contradictory messages about nutrition topics expressed more confusion about those topics.
  • Those who expressed confusion also expressed more doubt about nutrition guidelines and were slightly less likely to adhere to healthy lifestyle recommendations.
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Exposure to conflicting news about the health benefits of certain foods, vitamins and supplements often results in confusion and backlash against nutrition recommendations, finds a recent study in the Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives.

This confusion and backlash may make people more likely to ignore not only the contradictory information, but also widely accepted nutritional advice such as eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and exercising regularly, said Rebekah Nagler, Ph.D., assistant professor in University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Minneapolis and author of the study.

Nagler analyzed responses collected from 631 adults who took part in the Annenberg  National Health Communication Survey in 2010. Participants were asked how much conflicting or contradictory information they heard from the media, including newspapers, television, radio, and the internet about four specific nutritional topics: red wine or other alcohol; fish; coffee; and vitamins or other supplements.

More than 71 percent of people surveyed said that they heard moderate or high levels of contradictory information about nutrition. Those with the greatest exposure to contradictory information expressed the most confusion about nutrition. Greater confusion was associated indirectly with backlash against nutritional advice in general, as indicated by agreement with statements such as “Dietary recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt,” or “Scientists really don’t know what foods are good for you”. This was true even when controlling for age, education or level of general mistrust. Confusion and backlash were also slightly associated with less intention to exercise or eat fruits and vegetables.

Many people get health information from the news media, which may not make it clear that research is constantly evolving. In addition, different research institutes may produce conflicting results on similar topics or produce results on related topics that are at cross purposes, such as finding that fish containing oils that are good for your heart may be contaminated with mercury, which is bad for you, Nagler explained.

"Can the public deal with [these messages]? Can they make sense of what they are seeing?" Nagler wondered. The fault may not lie solely with journalists for not doing a good job of explaining the research since the media landscape is changing as newspapers shrink and as social media such as blogs and Facebook grow in influence, she added.

"The author points out that there is an association at work here," said Ivan Oransky, M.D., vice president and global editorial director at MedPage Today and vice president of the Association of Health Care Journalists. The study notes that people who are confused about nutrition in the first place may blame the media for their confusion, he pointed out.

Journalists should try to avoid relying on information based on findings from a single nutrition or health study and instead report on findings from groups of studies, Oransky said. If journalists do report on a single study, they need to put the information in context, he added.

TERMS OF USE: This story is protected by copyright. When reproducing any material, including interview excerpts, attribution to the Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, is required. While the information provided in this news story is from the latest peer-reviewed research, it is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment recommendations. For medical questions or concerns, please consult a health care provider.

For More Information:

Reach the Health Behavior News Service, part of the Center for Advancing Health, at (202) 387-2829 or [email protected]

Nagler R:Adverse outcomes associated with media exposure to contradictory nutrition messages. J Health Comm. 19:1,24-40, DOI: 10.1080/10810730.2013.798384

Tags for this article:
Diet and Nutrition   Obesity   Exercise/Physical Activity   Environment and Health   Seek Knowledge about your Health   Women's Health   Men's Health   Lifestyle and Prevention  

Comments on this article
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Bonnie Church says
January 31, 2014 at 1:40 PM

And they need to report WHO is funding the study... there is a perception based on reality [merck - statin history] that pharma does not want you PREVENT or FORTIFY AGAINST with sensible supplementation that which they can TREAT with a drug.... etc.

Claude Martin-Mondiere says
January 31, 2014 at 1:56 PM

I have worked in the past in clinical research and we evaluated the supplements, the different food, drinks and nutriments. My conclusions after all these different studies has always bee very simple: a regulation of water and chemical is a first step to prevent numerous diseases. When somebody experience fatigue and wrong feeling a visit with a practitioner is the best to make the diagnosis and write a treatment which may be a nutrition plan with supplements to correct a ongoing deficiency. Medicine is simple to maintain more difficult to correct, auto medication with supplements in the fear of lack of something can be dangerous.

Juliot Vinolia (Dietitian & Research Scholar) says
February 1, 2014 at 7:08 AM

There is a lot of good and bad in every food we eat. Choosing the right foods what your body needs and limiting those that are not suitable can help one make his/her diet essentially balanced and healthy. For eg: a high protein diet, which is generally considered the most best form of dieting can be dangerous for those with elevated uric acid or creatinine levels or those with osteoarthritis. Olive oil is proved best for the doesn't mean we can have in plenty. This is the problem.....studies and researches highlight the good elements of foods and the public tends to overdo the same.

it is always best to get your blood tests done and followed by your health provider and then choose for your tailor made diet with a registered dietitian or nutritionist.

Christina says
November 7, 2014 at 2:23 PM

Just recently heard that Wheat, Milk, Corn based products, and Veg Oil make people age faster!!!! Here I thought milk and corn were good for the body. It's like they try to keep people in a state of confusion.