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EVALUATING FOOD & NUTRITION INFORMATION

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"Oat bran works wonders." "Cholesterol - health vs. hype." "Making complex carbohydrates simple." "It's time to face the fats." "The fat-to- muscle diet."

Every time you pick up a magazine these days, you're likely to find articles relating to diet, nutrition and health. These are among the hottest topics going. But this outpouring of information has had both good and not-so-good consequences.A recent survey conducted by the Lempert Report, a national food industry publication, found that 90 percent of those polled feel they are more nutritionally informed today than they were two years ago. However, 61 percent say they are frustrated because they can't keep up with the information.

Consumer attitudes today are in significant flux, says Phil Lempert, publisher of the report. "As consumers are increasingly inundated with nutritional do's and dont's, it is clear they are more confused than ever, and often misinformed about key issues."

For example, more than 96 percent of the respondents believe that a change in diet can lower their cholesterol levels - a topic that is still being heavily debated in the scientific community.

Yet there is high interest in anything and everything that comes along.

"We've concluded that consumers may actually be more interested in the information they get on food than the food itself."

Sorting through this information is not always easy. There are conflicting reports. There are exaggerated claims. There are distorted views. And there is a lot of good, useful information.

How can you tell the difference?

One thing to look for, says Maurine Hegsted, professor emeritus of food and nutrition at the University of Utah, is whether the article is really trying to sell a product. "If it is, there may be good information, but it may also be biased."

Look for a scientific base, for credentials. Is there a connection to a scientific organization such as a university, a state health organization or government agency?

And above all, she says, use some common sense. Does it seem too far-fetched to be true? "That should alert you that it perhaps goes too far."

Great discoveries in nutrition make great headlines, notes the American Council on Science and Health, a nonprofit consumer education and advocacy group. But, it says, "too often preliminary research findings are presented without sufficient verification from the scientific community.

"Unfortunately, many consumers believe that if information about health or nutrition is published, it has to be true or proven. In fact, it is perfectly legal to publish material that has been proven false. As long as the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, American magazines are free to publish inaccurate information. Most inaccuracies are not deliberate, but occur because authors use unreliable sources or are not qualified to interpret what they write about."

Today's magazine editors face the challenging task of conveying scientific information to an increasingly inquisitive and health conscious audience in a form that the audience can understand and appreciate, notes the council. "At the same time, editors must also choose subjects that will attract the reader's attention and sell magazines. Pressure from advertisers also plays a part."

Because ACSH receives a steady stream of questions on nutritional topics - many based on misleading or incomplete information received from magazines - the council set out to determine the accuracy of nutrition reporting in major popular magazines. The first survey was completed in 1982 and has been updated every few years since then. The latest results are printed below.

A panel of professionals in the fields of nutrition education, food technology and nutrition policy surveyed articles from 25 magazines published between July 1986 and June 1988. Articles were rated on accuracy, timeliness and readability.

To establish accuracy, the panel asked: Does the article contain factual errors? Does the article rely on unscientific theories? Does the author promote misleading claims? Does the article substantiate health claims? Does the article contain misleading or harmful advice? In diet articles, is the diet sensible and safe? Is it effective for weight loss and is it feasible for prolonged weight maintenance?

Only two magazines - Consumer Reports and The Saturday Evening Post - received excellent ratings from the panel.

Although the number of nutrition articles in Consumer Reports was limited, the panel felt most contained considerable insight and depth. The articles in The Saturday Evening Post offered good and thorough analyses, primarily for an educated, adult audience.

The panel felt that the articles in the 10 magazines receiving a good rating were generally accurate and used a variety of mainstream scientific sources to discuss topics of importance, but they lacked in-depth coverage of scientific facts or placed too much emphasis on dieting fads and maintaining a youthful appearance.

In the fair category, magazines at the upper end generally provided reliable information, but overall scores suffered because a few articles contained poor advice based on speculation and myths. Often the articles were too short to explain nutritional topics where controversial opinions existed.

Two magazines - Gentlemen's Quarterly and Ladies' Home Journal - received scores that put them in the poor category. The panel felt most of their advice was based on conjecture or questionable research rather than scientifically sound facts. Examples of errors include promotion of nutrient megadoses and diets that are too low in important nutrients. How many men, the panel wondered, would be likely to follow advice in a GQ article "Power Fuel-Food for the Active Lifestyle," which suggested eating such dishes as buckwheat soba, whole wheat udon, Italian pizzoccheri pasta and Moroccan couscous?