Faster, CNN, Kill! Kill!

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The Center for Science in the Public Interest started its campaign against trans fats six years ago, and ACSH warned back then that the folks at CSPI are a bunch of irresponsible scare-mongers, always claiming in the fine print that they don't mean to alarm anyone but always knowing that their periodic anti-food pronouncements do just that. (Trans fats, like any fats, can be bad for the heart if eaten in excess, but there is nothing strange or toxic or especially insidious about them.)

If America's "consumer advocate" organizations are a bunch of attention-seeking scare-mongers, it would be nice to be able to turn to journalists for a skeptical second opinion, but you won't get that from CNN.

Take, for example, the recent CSPI-inspired and CSPI-dominated CNN Money online article "Scary! This Food Fat Can KILL You" (capital letters in the original). Of course, all fat can KILL, strictly speaking so can water if you drink too much of it but reporting the story in this way makes trans fats sound extraordinarily dangerous. One gets the impression that the reporter who did this story, Cathryn Conroy, hasn't been in the profession long enough ever to have asked herself whether sensationalism and fear-stoking might be bad. On the other hand, if she keeps this up, she may well have a long career ahead of her, getting plenty of readers and viewers by scaring them out of their wits.

Let's take a quick tour through the rhetoric deployed in this article. For starters, we're told: "It's called 'trans fat.' It lurks [lurks, mind you] in that package of cookies, that box of crackers, your morning cereal." That's not all: "It's in your potato chips and packaged dessert cakes. Don't run off and look for it on the nutrition label. You won't find it listed..." Ohmygod! It's right behind you! "Transfat," Conroy continues, "is a phantom fat."

Though all fat can contribute to heart disease if one eats too much, Conroy, as if unveiling a monster, tells us that the FDA "actually believes trans fat kills yes, KILLS! a dozen Americans every day." You'd think that svelte, fit people across America were jogging along, loving life, when they chanced upon a cracker with trans fats for the first time, nibbled, and keeled over, spitting up blood before expiring on the way to their nutritionists' offices.

CNN doesn't leave us feeling completely helpless, though. Conroy provides the following extremely useful guide for avoiding dreaded trans fats:

"The following foods have trans fat in them: Flour tortillas, Slim Fast Breakfast & Lunch Bars, Ramen noodles, Total cereal, and an estimated 42,700 other products that are on your grocery store's shelves...every box of crackers, 95 percent of cookies, 80 percent of all frozen breakfast foods, 70 percent of potato chips, 50 percent of all bread products, 40 percent of both hot and cold cereals, and 40 percent of all candy and gum. "

What I want to know and what some PR people at Slim Fast, Ramen, and Total must want to know as well is how those three companies, out of an estimated 42,700 products, managed to lose the bad-publicity lottery and end up being used as examples. As if this broad litany of dangerous foods weren't vague enough, Conroy offers the following advice for consumers:

"If you want to eliminate trans fats from your diet, you would have to eliminate all processed foods." Ah, so this whole article was pretty much a waste of time, right? Naturally, its author doesn't think so. She concludes: "Most of us eat about five grams of trans fat a day, and that's probably way too much. But knowing to look for it is half the battle. And now you know." Hey, thanks. I'll cut 42,700 random items from my diet immediately. I can still safely weigh 450 pounds as long as I lay off the Total cereal, right?

Just in case the reader of this CNN masterpiece didn't get the message, it is accompanied by a picture of a model ramming chips into her mouth with a look of mild terror or insanity in her eyes, and rarely will you see more bad acting crammed into a single still image.

The sad thing about articles like this is not just that they give trans fats a bad rap but that every such article adds to the haze of everything-will-kill-you warnings that Americans plod through every day, numbing their ability to identify and prioritize real risks, such as smoking, driving under the influence, or lack of exercise. Thus, in its own roundabout way, CNN may be killing a few Americans every day yes, KILLING!

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Responses:

November 2, 2002

I came across this article in a web search for information about Cathryn Conroy, the writer whose article is so eloquently attacked. I was searching for information about her because she is the CompuServe News Editor. Her articles always pop up when I logon to that service, and I think they are horrible.

The one I read today (November 2, 2002), "Christina: Not a Cookie-Cutter Virgin," clearly polarizes women's sexuality as "skank" or "virgin," ignoring any complexity to the issue and 150 years of women's efforts to publicly assert otherwise. Cathryn Conroy writes "news" of the caliber only fit to line a birdcage.

AMW


March 12, 2003

I was also looking up Cathryn Conroy because of the article "What's In McDonald's Chicken Nuggets?" which I am embarrassed to have even read. This article is an editorial without facts backing it up.

It lists the ingredients in Chicken McNuggets as "chicken along with water, salt, modified corn starch, sodium phosphates, chicken broth powder, and seasoning. There's also a sprinkling of sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, calcium lactate, citric acid, and dimethylpolysiloxane." It then goes on to report that McDonald's is planning on introducing McNuggets without "high fat" additives. Which if any of the above additives are "high fat"? Could it be chicken broth powder?

Watson2704


March 14, 2003

The food system in this nation is the reason we have so much illness. Processed foods must take most of the blame. There is no nutritional value in this food. You'd get more nutrition if you ate the packaging/box.

If you eat at any of the fast food joints, eat at your own risk. The fats are the cheapest and the worst for you. Beef tallow fat (from organically raised/pasture raised beef) is 100% better for you for frying than that stuff they're using in their fryers now. But then, why fry "fake food" in good fat?

kathy.houston


April 2, 2003

I just finished reading another Cathryn Conroy masterpiece, entitled "Drink Milk, Lose Weight? Some Say Yes," wherein she claimed dairy products help to shed pounds. The only reason she gave for this claim was the "high levels" of calcium present in these foods. She failed to include any vegetable or fruit sources, a dangerous message to send out to the public.

Incredibly incensed, I searched the Internet for her name, hoping to find her e-mail address or some way of contacting her to set her straight, and I was happy to find your site already educating the public on this dangerously misleading author. I'm disgusted to hear of her other obviously false articles in circulation, and even more surprised this woman still has a job.

Amie Rodgers


April 3, 2003

Today I clicked on the Freedom News/ConsumerFreedom.com story "The End of PB&J," then linked from that page to the ACSH story "Faster, CNN, Kill! Kill!" In that piece, Todd Seavey states the following:

"Trans fats, like any fats, can be bad for the heart if eaten in excess, but there is nothing strange or toxic or especially insidious about them."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Apparently, Todd has not had any exposure to the reams of data and dozens of studies over the past decade that have shown trans fats to be the single biggest dietary component that increases the risk of heart disease. Trans fats are the only type of fat that both raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. Not even beef tallow lowers good cholesterol, a condition which puts one at far greater risk of heart attack than a high level of good cholesterol ask any physician. Go ahead, search Google for "trans fat" and "cholesterol," and do your own research. The facts are there.

This misrepresentation of facts is sloppy and reprehensible. I have no love of junk science, but this story was completely irresponsible, uninformed propaganda at its worst.

John Clark
Los Angeles, CA