Nutritional Accuracy in Popular Magazines (1990-1992)

By ACSH Staff — Jul 01, 1994
Magazines are the principal source of diet and nutrition information in the American home. They influence the health beliefs and behaviors of millions of consumers. In this and three past surveys since 1982 the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has evaluated the nutrition articles of popular magazines for accuracy.

Magazines are the principal source of diet and nutrition information in the American home. They influence the health beliefs and behaviors of millions of consumers. In this and three past surveys since 1982 the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has evaluated the nutrition articles of popular magazines for accuracy.

In this latest survey, ACSH found that only 12 out of the 22 magazines evaluated, were reliable sources of nutrition information. Alone in the BEST category was Cooking Light, scoring 91 out of a possible 100 points. Eleven others scored in the GOOD category. Nine scored in the FAIR category, reflecting the need for some improvement. Only one magazine, Cosmopolitan, rated in the POOR category, with an overall rating of 62.

ACSH identified the 22 top-circulating magazines with the most extensive coverage of nutrition. Eight articles from those magazines from the period of July 1990 to June 1992 were chosen randomly. The articles were typed in a standard format with the names of authors, magazine titles and identifying features omitted to reduce any judging bias. Four judges, each an expert in the field of nutrition, rated the articles on the basis of (1) accuracy, (2) presentation (whether articles were logical and were written clearly and whether empirical data supported the articles' statements and conclusions) and (3) the reliability of their recommendations. The highest possible rating was 100, and categories were assigned as follows: BEST (90-100), GOOD (80-89), FAIR (70-79) and POOR (below 70).

One Magazine Rated BEST

Cooking Light, a newcomer to the survey, scored a BEST rating. The articles handily discussed difficult as well as traditional topics in an interesting prose style that made nutrition education enjoyable. Cooking Light's "Food For Thought" columns [Jul./Aug. '91, May/Jun. '92] consistently provided accurate information about how to incorporate a variety of foods into a healthful diet. Articles such as "Breakfast Cereals: Health Versus Hype" [Jul./Aug. '90] scored well with judges for easy readability and technical merit.

Magazines Rated GOOD

Eleven magazines earned GOOD ratings: American Health, Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes & Gardens, Glamour, Parents, Reader's Digest, McCall's, Prevention, Redbook and Woman's Day. These magazines were accurate on the whole, but lost points for minor factual errors and/or inadequate documentation of the source of information.

American Health emphasizes important nutrition messages, for example, that we should eat more foods that are a good source of calcium, "Beyond Milk: The Quest for Calcium" [May '91] and fruits and vegetables, "Unforbidden Fruit" [Jan./Feb. '91]. Its colorful style puts a new spin on conventional recommendations. Minor point deductions occurred when it did not adequately define its sources.

Consumer Reports' comprehensive nutrition analyses of products and in-depth coverage are "hard to find elsewhere," according to a judge. But accuracy suffered in "The Trouble with Hamburgers" [Aug. '90] when sources were not clearly documented and recommendations were neither based on accepted nutrition principles nor fully supported by the information in the article. The article stated that, "Antibiotics in beef may be a... valid concern" because, "the drugs can... encourage development in the animal strains of bacteria that resist the antibiotics used." The transfer of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria from food animals to humans is unresolved and should be presented as such.

Good Housekeeping's "Nutrition, Diet and Fitness" column was consistently accurate, but "Dr. Art Ulene's Weight-Loss Plan" [Feb. '92] contained some errors and didn't draw support from documented information. For example, the article stated that rapid eaters consume more food per sitting and feel stuffed afterwards. However, according to Hamilton and Whitney's Nutrition Concepts and Controversies (West Publishing Co., 1994), some overeaters claim they never feel full. Success on this diet is based in part on receiving points for eating when truly hungry (as evidenced by physical hunger pangs) versus eating when triggered by environmental cues. But external cues such as the aroma or sight of food can produce stomach rumblings indiscernible from physiological hunger pangs. (Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, Lea & Fibinger, 1994). On the positive side, the diet provided some sensible strategies to curb overeating.

Some Better Homes and Gardens articles, although appearing to come straight out of a textbook, occasionally needed fine tuning. In "The Sweet Truth: Sugar Myths vs. the Facts" [Feb. '91] the comment, "...fructose does not require insulin to be digested...while...sucrose does," is inaccurate. Insulin does not perform digestion, rather it acts as a conduit for blood sugar to enter cells. Advice to athletes in "Summer Thirst Quenchers [Jul. '91]" to select high water content fruits for greater fluid intake was impractical. Its minor mistakes were counterbalanced by high-scoring articles such as, "Calcium: Are You Getting Enough?" [Apr. '92].

Glamour debunked myths and presented both sides of nutrition controversies. Its "Nutrition Questions" column [Jun. '90] set the record straight on common food facts. "How Healthy are the New Fake Foods?" [Feb. '92] and "Food Irradiation: The Fears, the Facts" [Jun. '92] were well-balanced reports on controversial subjects. That shrimp is "one of the best sources of vitamin E," in "Salads, the Green Revolution" [Jun. '90] was inaccurate. Fried shrimp may derive most of its vitamin E from vegetable oil. Vegetable oils are generally considered some of the best sources of vitamin E, along with margarine, dark green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

Parents' in-depth coverage, expert use of scientific information and encouragement to turn to credentialed health professionals for customized advice are hallmarks of a publication seriously concerned about its readers. "Nutrition for Kids: The Safe Food Kitchen" [Oct. '90], however, overlooked the FDA position that trace levels of pesticides in the food supply are safe and acceptable. The article erroneously discouraged the consumption of certain fruits because of high pesticide levels.

Reader's Digest's educational article "Confused About Fiber?" [Jul. '90] made a clear distinction between preliminary and accepted scientific information. However in, "Breakfast at the FDA Cafe," [Jun. '92] satirical examples of food safety and health issues, such as statements that Maine blueberries are potentially radioactive and that baking powder contains a substance linked to Alzheimer's Disease, could be interpreted as believable rather than humorous.

McCall's accuracy fluctuated. It scored well for realistically describing the essentials for weight loss in "How Oprah and You Can Lose Weight for Good" [Jan. '92], but floundered with an essay: "Vitamins for Pregnancy" [May '91] which contained some unproven recommendations. The article recommended that pregnant women take vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium in excess of the pregnancy RDA, and liberal amounts of ginger for morning sickness. Loosely constructed briefs such as "Coffee Can Keep You Sexy" [Jun. '90] gave readers limited information which could lead to faulty interpretations.

Prevention demonstrated tremendous improvement in quality and accuracy of articles from previous years. However, ratings were slightly dampened by the need for more detailed information and the lack of references to support preliminary or controversial subject matter. In "Garlic on the Front Lines" [Jan. '92], no source was mentioned for any of the cited studies. For example, no source was documented for a study describing a drop in diastolic blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides for patients receiving a special garlic powder. Thus, the reader was unable to evaluate the credibility of the information, noted Judge Irene Berman-Levine.

Redbook's tips from nutrition experts in "New High-Energy Breakfast" [Mar. '91] scored well, but the magazine lost points when complex subjects were covered in two or three brief paragraphs as in "Health: You and Your Child" [Oct. '91]. Such articles were open to misinterpretation.

If a Woman's Day article was based on preliminary research, that fact was stated clearly. However, its score was reduced because of articles such as "How to Win at Dieting" [May 28, '91] which lacked support for its advice to enroll in a diet program. The article began: "Diet dropout? One of these eight top programs and support groups may be just right for you." But the article failed to mention the high recidivism and low success rates of the majority of programs listed. Three of the programs touted the loss of more than two pounds per week despite sound recommendations against such rapid weight loss.

Magazines Rated FAIR

Family Circle, Harper's Bazaar, Runner's World, Self, Health, Mademoiselle, Vogue, Ladies' Home Journal and New Woman were rated FAIR in their nutrition reporting. Factual errors, imbalanced perspectives, promotion of nonscientific principles or failure to document information sources resulted in lost points.

Some Family Circle articles treated science too simplistically. An article, "Can Your Diet Prevent Wrinkles?" [Jun. 5, '90], suggested that it is possible to, "slow your rate of wrinkling by eating enough healthy foods to keep the fat layers under your skin sufficiently plump."

While it contained a share of good articles, Harper's Bazaar erred in treating complex issues superficially. An article titled, "The New Fake Food Diet" [Mar. '92] quoted extremists rather than scientific experts when it came to discussing the safety of artificial sweeteners and fats who made statements such as "... the FDA approved these food additives before adequate tests were done." The FDA position on artificial fats and sweeteners is that those that have been approved have been adequately tested and are safe for human consumption in the amounts typical of the normal diet. Had the article relied on the advice of a nutrition professional for its safety information, it would have been less likely to generate unjustified fear.

Runner's World often singled out particular nutrients for health benefit. But foods, not nutrients, are what we eat. Articles about taking supplements ended with qualifications that "further study is needed," but the entire article, not only the last few lines, will influence readers. This publication tries hard to educate, and it does so best in its one-on-one "Ask the Expert" column. The magazine should be careful not to generalize about issues such as supplementation.

Self's score plummeted because of articles such as "Food Cures: The New Connections Between Diet and Disease" [Aug. '90]. Findings that link phytoestrogens in soybeans to breast cancer prevention were presented as conclusive, but the scientific evidence is still equivocal. Despite the closing, "Next: seeing if the effects hold up in humans," the article did not sufficiently advise the reader of the preliminary status of this research.

Health (previously known as In Health) lost points for covering esoteric subject matter in articles such as "Fight Cavities With Cardamom" [Apr. '92]. One article, "How Table Salt Shaked Out," [Feb./Mar. '92] discussed ways to reduce dietary sodium but ignored the big picture of whether sodium restriction is necessary. The concern here is hypertension, but only half of those with the condition are sodium sensitive. Hypertensive individuals need to discuss appropriate treatment with their physician. Evidence has not confirmed that healthy individuals will reduce their risk of hypertension by reducing salt in their diet.

Mademoiselle's "Diet for the Worst Days" [Oct. '90] gave no evidence that its recommendations to eat more whole grains and take vitamin B6 to lessen menstrual symptoms would work because no such evidence exists. On controlling fat intake, "Fats: The Good, the Bad and the Deadly" [Dec. '90], erroneously advised, "If the product has more than three grams of fat per 100 calories, put it back on the shelf." A judge commented, "One must look at the total diet before ruling out one food for its fat content."

In contrast to past surveys when it was consistently well-rated, Vogue appeared more concerned with what's fashionable in food than what's sensible. An example was a particularly low-scoring "Food" column [Feb. '91] on the French Paradox. According to Judge Berman-Levine, the article "appeared to go to great lengths to get the reader to abandon any thought of a fat-controlled, healthy diet." The article closed with a ridiculous query: "could Americans cut their heart disease rate in half by switching to a high-cheese, high-wine, high-goose-fat French diet? If I were the Surgeon General... I would immediately shift every available resource to answering that question." In addition, the author attempted to evaluate complex topics such as the genetic factors associated with heart disease with simple arguments such as, "The genetic argument is hopelessly feeble because the French are not a homogenous people like the Japanese." This article seemed to present the simple brainstorms of an uneducated author.

Certain articles in Ladies' Home Journal and New Woman scored perfectly while others flopped, possibly reflecting different authors' writing styles. One Ladies' Home Journal article on food safety ["How Safe is Our Food?" Jun. '90] was flawless. More often, however, "Medinews" columns [Jan. '91, Jan. '92, May '92] oversimplified its nutrition information. For example, one column suggested that brewer's yeast supplements can prevent adult-onset diabetes, but this disease is multifactorial and needs to be addressed as such. Another column stated that a high-salt diet may damage the arteries of people with normal blood pressure. It inaccurately pointed to the need for even healthy individuals to avoid salt. "These blurbs abandon accuracy for brevity," noted a judge. Likewise, judges objected to a New Woman article, "Mood Food" [Jul. '91] that endorsed a connection between food and stress and which referred readers to naturopathic physicians. On the other hand, "Never Say 'Diet'" [Apr. '91] scored well for discouraging quick-fix diets in favor of sensible eating.

One Magazines Rated POOR

Cosmopolitan was in the POOR category all on its own, obtaining a score of only 62, well below the score of any other magazine. Its articles contained factual errors, failed to document information sources, promoted nonscientific principles, treated preliminary research as proven and, in general, gave poor advice especially when it came to dieting. Cosmopolitan exploited nutrition for cover-story appeal. One example was the "Lose-Four-Pounds-in-Four-Days Diet" [Jul. '91] in which we counted just 435 calories for the day. Such diets are common in Cosmopolitan and are probably an effective tool to sell magazines to those who want to lose weight. Yet the magazine's own advice in an earlier "Dieter's Notebook" column [Apr. '91] expressed exactly why such diets are unsuccessful, "extremely low-calorie-diets decrease metabolism." Worse was "Dieter's Notebook" [Apr. '91] advice promoting worthless supplements of coenzyme Q, carnitine and primrose oil extracts to lose weight while ignoring the need for exercise in weight loss. Cosmopolitan's reliance on fasts, near-fasts or pills to lose weight will not give readers the knowledge to lose weight safely or permanently.

The magazine also simplified many topics to the point of absurdity. For example, "Dieter's Notebook" [Aug. '90] states: "If a nap holds greater appeal than a calorie-burning jog around the block, maybe you need more boron." The idea that people can self-diagnose based on a one-liner does more harm than good.

Nutrition Education through the Popular Press

Americans get most of their nutrition information from magazines, according to a 1994 survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the International Food Information Council. However, the survey also found that consumers trust the advice of health professionals more than any advice they read in magazines. ACSH's survey justifies such skepticism. Ten of the 22 magazines, scoring in the FAIR and POOR categories need to improve their accuracy, present their information more clearly and justify their recommendations to readers. This survey found that when magazines oversimplify complex subject matter, they often convey an erroneous message. The majority of magazines in the FAIR category lost points for superficial explanations and inaccurate recommendations about nutrition's role in health. "Writers ought to be trained in science first and then in English. And supervising editors should definitely know their stuff and staff," Judge Kroger stated. Many magazines, such as Good Housekeeping and Glamour which scored well, have nutrition experts on staff who seek out information from credible experts and can effectively distinguish between fact and theory.

ACSH recognizes the onerous chore of making complex scientific topics accessible to a lay audience and applauds magazines in the BEST and GOOD categories that do so consistently. These magazines appear to recognize their responsibility to educate the public. Since ACSH's first survey in 1982, nutrition accuracy in magazines seems to be improving. "My overall impression is that quality, reliability and scientific merit have increased over (the years)," according to Kroger, who has served as a judge in every ACSH survey. On the whole, more responsible nutrition reporting has taken root and replaced outlandish claims, unworkable diets and nutrition cure-alls in the pages of most magazines.

However, because magazines are under no obligation to print the truth, Cosmopolitan can get away with its brand of nutrition reporting. Nutrition as a science is vulnerable to speculation, sensationalism and untruths. If handled incorrectly, nutrition is easily treated in a sensationalist manner.

Consumers, no matter what publication they read, should take a more discerning approach. ACSH advises consumers to verify nutritional claims with reputable professionals, nutrition text books or professional organizations.

Diane Woznicki, M.S., R.D., is Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics at Albright College, and Adjunct Instructor in Nutrition at The Pennsylvania State University.

Andrea Golaine Case, M.S., is Publications Editor at the American Council on Science and Health.

Judged by:

Irene Berman-Levine, Ph.D., R.D., Principal, Nutrition Program Planning, Harrisburg, PA.

F.J. Francis, Ph.D., Professor of Food Science and Nutrition at The University of Massachuesetts, Amherst.

Manfred Kroger, Ph.D., Professor of Food Science and Professor of Science, Technology and Society at The Pennsylvania State University.

Fredrick J. Stare, M.D., Professor, Emeritus, of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Statistical analysis by Jerome Lee, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at Albright College.

(From Priorities, Vol. 6, No. 3)

ACSH relies on donors like you. If you enjoy our work, please contribute.

Make your tax-deductible gift today!



Popular articles