Who says breakfast is the most important meal of the day? And why does spinach induce you strong? It sounds like conventional wisdom, but most of it was cooked up by ad men
What came first, the chicken-is-healthy study or the eggs-are-unhealthy study? Nutritional advice is notoriously nebulous, and food groups regularly alternate between demonisation and deification. Fat makes you fat; fat makes you thin; carbs are basically crack; carbs are back. Corporate agendas are behind much of this confusion. But, more worryingly, theyre also behind many of the food facts we take for granted. Much conventional health wisdom is actually commercialised wisdom: the result of canny marketing campaigns or industry-funded studies. Even if you think youre above advertising, immune to the seductions of pseudoscience, you would be surprised how many marketing myths you may have inadvertently swallowed.
Breakfast of chumps
Lets start with breakfast. Theres no conclusive evidence a morning dinner induces you lose weight and feel great, but the idea that breakfast is the most important dinner of the day is widely ingrained. This is largely thanks to the efforts of grain companies. Kelloggs, for example, funded an influential study that linked breakfasting on cereal at relatively low BMI. And The Quaker Oats Center of Excellence financed research showing that a daily breakfast of porridge reduces cholesterol.
Big Cereal isnt alone in bigging up breakfast with biased science; bacon is also to blamed. In the 1920 s, PR man Edward Bernays was tasked with increasing bacon intake in the US. At the time, most Americans eat a light breakfast; Bernays figured a good way to increase bacon consumption would be to increase breakfast consumption. So, he asked physicians to confirm that a hearty breakfast was better than a light breakfast to replace the energy lost by the body at night; 4,500 doctors agreed and Bernays got the media to report the results, strategically placing bacon adverts by the headlines. Today, 70% of bacon eaten in the US is eaten at breakfast.
Squeezing the truth
Orange juices position as part of a healthy breakfast is the fruit of a marketing men imagination. In 1908, California faced a surplus of oranges; if citrus growers( organised under the brand Sunkist) didnt increase intake, they would go bust. At the time, Americans didnt drink fresh orange juice, but an ad bureau decided to change that. It devised a cheap juice extractor, which it publicised in adverts extolling the health benefits of drinking an orange. We asked 3,000 physicians about orange juice for newborns, reads one Sunkist ad. The physicians were all for it. The campaign led to a massive increase in juice intake and generated a health halo around fruit juice that has only recently started to slip.
You may have heard that caffeine stunts growth; this is unsubstantiated nonsense. The short story is that its a tall tale spread by Postum, a caffeine-free morning beverage fabricated in the late 1800 s. Postum marketed itself as an alternative to coffee by demonising its competitor, indicating coffee stunted a childs mental and physical developing. One Postum ad indicates a small boy fighting at school: Held back by coffee this son never stood a fair chance.
Eight is not the magic number
Drinking eight glasses of water per day is great if you enjoy urinating, but generally its unnecessary. The eight-a-day myth seems to derive from old guidelines stating that, while people need 2.5 litres of water per day, we get most of that from our regular diet. Merely half of that datum seems to have stuck. Bottled water companies have helped reinforce existing hydration misinformation through overstated health marketing, and we lap it up. Consumption of bottled water has shot up in the UK, its now 100 times higher than in 1980.
The military-industrial-carrot complex
Some food myths go deep into the upper orders of government. The idea that carrots imbue you with night vision originated in the second world war, when the British government dealt with an oversupply of carrots via propaganda indicating carotene was the source of the RAFs night-flying abilities. The actual source was radar, but that was sort of classified. Its unlikely the Luftwaffe bought the carrot-vision story, but the British public did and millions of carrots were devoured in the hope of being able to see better in a blackout.
Rumours of spinach iron content have been greatly exaggerated. The blame for this has traditionally been casting on clumsy German scientists who put a decimal point in the wrong place, bestowing spinach with 10 times more iron than it has. However, the decimal-point myth has itself been debunked. So, by the route, has Popeyes iron enthusiasm; Popeye liked spinach for the Vitamin A. Despite all the debunking, however, both spinach and Popeye are still strongly associated with iron. Marketing may not be responsible for this particular fallacy, but it does demonstrate how hard it is to overrule misinformation once it gets out there. Which is something many marketers understand when they move exaggerated claims.
Statistics demonstrated that, eventually, 100% of us will die. Whether we should avoid carbs, fat, chicken or eggs in order to postpone that demise is not so clear cut. Nevertheless, looking at who monies the research behind health headlines is always advisable; many supposedly scientific studies are best taken with a heavy pinch of salt. Although, you know, that may have been an expres invented by the sodium lobby.
Read more: www.theguardian.com