Before I log off, I note an Atkins banner on my MSN homepage asking me to
fill in my height and weight. I lie, typing in that I'm a 5-foot-10, 135-pound, 25-year-old female. When
I punch "enter," the Web site tells me I'm perfectly healthy, but pushes me to buy anyway. "Your low-carb meal plan will enable you to enjoy a lifetime of weight management."11
I throw some clothes on my 6-foot, 185-pound body and head for the grocery store. This place is a feast for a science-claim junkie. There's some Atkins low-carb bread, designed to contain as little as possible of the thing bread is famous for. There's a sign over the bread aisle: "Go for the grains! Bread and other grain foods are the foundation of healthy eating."12 Meanwhile, the Wegman's brand bread claims to be "bromate-free."13 Further along, a Perdue chicken assures me it's "all natural!"14 and a bag of Diamond walnuts has a little flag saying "omega-3!"15
A package of yeast brags that it's "gluten-free."16
Puzzlingly, a nearby display suggests that gunky, white coconut oil may be a diet aid: A 2003 weekly magazine article conveniently posted over the bottles announces, "University
of Colorado research has found coconut oil can increase your calorie-burning power by up to 50%."17
"People in a grocery store assume the government is scrutinizing the claims products make, so if they're on the label, they must be accurate and important," notes William Hallman, a psychologist at the Food Policy Institute
at Rutgers University. Of course, it's more complicated than that. The assumption of accuracy is correct, but the assumption of importance
is not. Both Federal Trade Commission and FDA regulations require truthfulness on packages. Yes, the chicken is chicken. But, Hallman
continues, "while the claim
may be factually correct, the actual health benefits may lack practical significance."
Why make claims that "lack practical significance"? Because, says Hallman, "we jump to the conclusion that the benefits are substantial." Scientific language cues the consumer to take an insignificant claim and provide a significant health benefit on the company's behalf. "The beauty of this is that the manufacturer doesn't have to make the claim of benefits explicit." Doesn't have to, and, for the most part, couldn't.
We do this because we generally believe science is good for us. The National Science Board survey found that although 90 percent of Americans consider themselves "interested" in science, only 15 percent consider themselves well informed. Ninety percent interested, 15 percent informed: That's
a gap any marketing MBA could drive a truck of baloney through.
The Fine Print
11. Low-carb Plan: Blanket pitch. A healthy, right-weight 25-year-old woman needs a lifetime plan?
12. Go for the grains: Reasonable. Despite the renewed controversy about low-carb diets, the evidence is not definitive. Balanced diet, calorie control and exercise are still regarded as the best way to combat obesity. The FDA is reviewing the Food Pyramid, but it's unlikely to replace it with a Meat and Fat Pyramid. University of Colorado physician and nutritionist Holly Wyatt says, "All these diets mess up the message, saying, ?It's carbs!' ?It's protein!' It's neither. Calories are what count."
13. Bromate-free: Voodoo use of chemical name. Wegman's bread is indeed bromate-free, but it doesn't much matter. Some studies have shown that bromate, a dough enhancer, is a carcinogen if consumed in large amounts, though these findings are controversial. Bromate has never been found in baked breads at harmful levels. Most brands have stopped using bromate altogether.
14. All natural: Invokes a magic word. "Natural" conjures up images of happy chickens prancing about a sunny barnyard under a windmill. All this claim really means, though?insofar as FDA regulators are concerned?is that the chicken is not made of plastic. Chickens labeled "all natural" may have been crammed by the thousands into tight pens, clipped of their claws and beaks, and stuffed full of antibiotics they'd never find in that "natural" barnyard.
15. Omega-3: Cryptic. Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of fat underrepresented in our diets, according to many nutritionists. All walnuts contain omega-3's, so the claim is accurate. But the message is reduced to code. Greek letter plus number equals "science-based," ergo good.
16. Gluten-Free YeasT: Duh. Yeast is a fungus. Gluten is a product of plant protein. In evolutionary terms, yeast and gluten are as unrelated as a cow and an orange.
17. Coconut oil: Fad. Two public-information officers at the University of Colorado canvassed their scientific faculty, trying to find anyone who had done this research. No luck. The notion that a saturated fat boosts "calorie-burning power"?rather than increasing the number of calories to be burned?is problematic. Well-known studies have shown that saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease. Still, the rumor of coconut oil's "power" created a run on the stuff in 2003.