I’ve seen a lot of strange headlines for health articles, but last week I saw two that really stood out for sloppy journalism on top of shoddy research. The first was the Xinhua headline “Popcorn Healthier Than Fruit, Vegetables.” They discussed a research paper presented at a conference (not in a journal) which analyzed the nutritional value of popcorn:
One of the scientists behind the study, Dr. Joe Vinson of the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, explained that there are more of the antioxidant substances called polyphenols concentrated in popcorn than most fruits and vegetables. One reason is that popcorn only contains about 4 percent water while fruits and vegetables contain up to 90 percent water.
The researchers also find that the hulls of popcorn – the part that everyone hates for its tendency to get caught in the teeth – has been found to have the highest concentration of polyphenols and fibre. They are actually “nutritional gold nuggets,” according to Vinson.
“Popcorn may be the perfect snack food,” said Dr. Vinson. One serving of popcorn will provide more than 70 percent of the daily intake of whole grain needed by an adult.
Vinson warned, however, that how the popcorn is prepared is the key to its healthiness. Air popped popcorn is the best, while microwave popcorn is much worse, as is popcorn made in pot full of oil, butter, and covered with sugar or salt.
Popcorn, in its air-popped form is healthy, but could never fully replace fruits and vegetables due to the other vitamins and nutrients found in them.
So the most important sentence comes at the very last, of course, after the attention-grabbing headline gets you to read the whole thing. I suppose the editing board is just doing their job — to attract readers. And in fact it is a provocative article which, due to the widespread coverage, may get more people to be healthier — but only if they eat air-popped popcorn as a replacement for more unhealthy snacks (such as Oreo cookies, which I confess to adore). And it only applies to air-popped popcorn with essentially no toppings, which sounds painfully, boringly “healthy”. As more balanced articles make clear, the vastly more palatable microwaved popcorns and enormous movie bags oozing with oil are deliciously unhealthy. It’s too bad that in Chinese movie theatres we don’t even get the choice to have lightly salted popcorn, as almost all only have strangely multicolored sweet popcorn.
The other crazy headline this week also comes from Xinhua, which blared that more frequently eating chocolate can help you lose weight. Unlike the above study, this one actually was published in an esteemed peer-reviewed journal — but the paper itself isn’t very robust, only being a cross-sectional questionnaire taken at one point in time. This study design makes it impossible to assess whether chocolate causes weight loss, only that it may be associated with weight loss. This statistical subtlety gets lost to most people, but the distinction is critical. In other words, eating chocolate more frequently possibly may be associated with being thinner but that doesn’t mean the chocolate did it. Worse, the study didn’t break down the results into types of chocolate, so we have no idea whether white, dark or milk was the factor — if there’s a factor at all.
It’s too bad about both of these headlines, as I actually love popcorn at home as a snack — with a tiny bit of oil and some seasoning. I also love dark chocolate and have blogged about this often — but only the dark chocolate is “heart healthy”, and only in small amounts. So the worst outcome for readers would be to eat more movie popcorn and scarf down some white chocolate easter bunnies.
I discuss both of these articles in the March 28 weekly podcast on CRI Radio’s Beijing Hour.
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You can listen to all my previous podcasts at my podcast archive. You can always listen live to my radio interview each Wednesday around 7:35am Beijing time, on the Beijing Hour program on EZFM 91.5, which is broadcast from 7-8am every weekday by host Paul James. EZFM is the popular bilingual radio station on the China Radio International network, broadcasting here in Beijing and on multiple stations all over the world, as well as live online.
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