Nutrition Junk Science: Red Flags That Help You Spot It!

Posted on 09 Nov 2012 18:59

By Eric Troy

Nutrition for Health and Health Care has a list of junk science red flags attributed The Food and Nutrition Science Alliance (FANSA).1 I like this list so much I decided to make a blog post to do nothing more than list them, and I am not the first one to do so. They very well sum up how to be on guard against junk science in the nutrition world and, of course, junk science in the health industry and in the broader sense. Remember that a "red flag" does not automatically mean that something is amiss, it means that you should have your hackles raised a bit because you've encountered a warning sign. Now, the more red flags you see in one piece of information, the more you can be assured that it is junk. I will expand on some of them.

FANSA is a joining of members from seven professional scientific societies. The organization speaks on food and nutrition science issues. FANSA's combined membership includes more than 100,000 food, nutrition, and medical practitioners and scientists. The societies are:

  • American College of Nutrition
  • American Dietetic Association
  • American Society for Clinical Nutrition
  • American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition
  • American Society of Nutritional Sciences
  • Institute of Food Technologists
  • Society for Nutrition Education

I've previously written a related post about media reporting of nutrition studies and of course there is the GUS pseudoscience section. Some people make distinctions between pseudoscience and junk science. Some even have other categories of bad science. These may be valid but to me its all crap and I don't care how you label it, just learn to recognize crap when you see it. Here are the red flags of FANSA. Although this list is universally attributed to FANSA, I have been unable to locate an original document or website.

Listen to the Voice Version (shortened)

Red Flags of Nutrition Related Junk Science

1. The information promises a quick and easy fix. This should eliminate half of what is out there.

A ready example is any one of many quick fat loss products or programs that promise that you'll lose weight via some method or pill that "tricks" your metabolism, so that you lose weight without dieting or exercise. Nothing of the sort exists.

2. Fearful messages or warnings of great danger from a single food, product, diet, etc. You'll find that the easy fixes are often accompanied by these types of tactics against the competition. I have an easy example in this typical bashing of a single product, namely casein, just sent to me recently. Of course, this guy knows something I don't: He knows how to trigger the biological mechanisms that transform your body and extend your life. Should we ask how much older than 100 he is? And how many 115-year-olds he has on his personal success list? Moving on…

3. It says what most everybody wants to hear. In other words, it is too good to be true. Let's see: Eat all the fatty red meat you want and avoid fruit and gluten (Wheat Belly?). You'll live longer. Yep, that fits the bill nicely.

4. Simple (simple-minded?) conclusions drawn from a complex study. Most of the time, the data from a highly involved and complex study does not lend itself to one easy and simple conclusion. In fact, more often than not, the data just brings up the need for further investigation into certain areas brought to light by the limitation of the data.

5. Making recommendations based on a single study. I have ranted about this more than once. See Surprising New Nutrition Finding: Nutrition Articles on News Sites Suck and Spotting Bad Fitness Articles: A Study Said This.

pomegranate fruit on pomegranate tree

Are pomegranates and pomegranate juice really such miracles?
Or is this pomegranate junk science?

6. Dramatic statements or claims that are refuted by major scientific organizations. This is a lesson that most lay-people never seem to grasp, and it is owed to the many old stories of amazing scientific discoveries that turned accepted knowledge on its head. These stories are the exception, not the rule. Saying something different than everyone else does not make you right!

7. Lists of good and bad foods! These are the articles I hate most of all and they are a dime a dozen. There are no bad foods, nutritionists sometimes say, only bad diets. Also, this is a good time to bring up the difference between a food, a dish, or a product. Anyone can make a list of prepared food products with less than stellar nutrition. However, this is not bad food, it is a bad combination of food ingredients. Check the blatant tactic in this article. The "bad" foods are prepared products, and the good foods are almost all fresh vegetables and fruits, salmon, and few exceptions like a Greek yogurt and some whole grain crackers. These are completely random products compared to completely random foods that are picked out of a hat.

8. You may sometimes find products linked in nutrition articles, whether they be foods, books, etc. This is okay. But when the article is making claims designed to sell that particular product, you should be cautious. "This food is delicious" is probably more credible than "this is a superfood."

9. Study results released to the media before peer review, and sometimes before publication! Claims or recommendations based on studies without peer review, such as when a study is reported to the media and recommendations are made based on the study, before other scientists have a chance to review the work is one of the biggest problems in science today. This absolutely undermines the scientific process. Many times, you will know from how the work is reported whether it has been peer reviewed, but sometimes this is a tough one for lay people. Today, since there are hundreds, if not thousands of non-peer reviewed journals, the problem is even tougher.


How should we know if a study was peer reviewed? And if it is peer-reviewed, what did the other scientists have to say? Well, the truth is, most fantastical claims made about the healing or marked disease fighting properties of foods, when based on studies, are based on quite shoddy and discredited studies. Too good to be true is simply that, too - good - to - be - true. A familiar example is pomegranate juice, with its studies claiming pronounced cardiovascular effects. Do your best to read the studies and look for references to the studies so that you can tease out what experts have to say about it. It can be a lot of work, especially since most articles do not properly reference such studies. Usually, though, when the claims being made seem a bit far-fetched, you can feel fairly assured that any studies referenced were not peer-reviewed, were shoddy, or, as is often the case, not even related to the specifics of the claims.

Remember, ANY scientific results that are released to the public prior to being released and reviewed by the rest of the scientific community should be considered suspect until otherwise proven. Among many reasons this is done, one of the main ones is to secure grant money from private institutions so that a University can continue research. If a study can be reported to the media and sensationalized in advance of any scientific review (which may discredit the study), there may be a better chance of securing this money. Not all companies or organizations that have money to contribute to invest in research actually know good science from bad, or whether a certain scientific avenue is worth pursuing. Many millions of dollars are thrown at junk science every year.

10. Recommendations from studies that ignore differences among individuals or groups. This would be "sweeping conclusions" being made based on one sample from one particular group of individuals. What applies to someone else may not apply to you or may not apply to you in the same way. When Morgan Spurlock had his health go the crap after eating exclusively McDonald's, well, that really happened. But this does not mean that you would be affected in the exact same way at the same rate. Perhaps your baseline fitness is greater, for example. By the same token, when some fitness personalities, being in grand shape, try to disprove his results by doing the experiment on themselves, to find less pronounced ill effects, they are making the same mistake in reverse. Of course, these examples are not really scientific studies, but are more like case studies (by lay-persons) on one individual. Case studies cannot be used as evidence of an effect or lack of effect, despite the fact that they can be very illuminating.

My Personal Big Red Flag

I have one big red flag and it has everything to do with science and how it works, as well as the profession that is dietetics or nutrition. This is a kind of statement which, to me, once uttered, should be considered to be a deal breaker because it is the height of dishonesty. The kind of statement I have in mind involves ideas about "modern" nutrition or the new science of nutrition. Many fraudulent huxters use this idea of a new wave of science to discount the mainstream. They say that the new science of nutrition has left dieticians and nutritionists behind. This is, of course, a load of crap. What they really mean is that they have a pet theory that nobody thinks holds any weight and they would like you to think that the reason nobody agrees with it is because they are not privy to the new science. They want you to think they are ahead of the curve and the rest of the scientific community just hasn't caught up. Says this person, they don't understand! They cannot see what I see because I have a special understanding they lack! "They don't understand," is never a valid defense of a theory: It is no defense at all. Once you hear it, you should know to move on.

1. Whitney, Eleanor Noss. Nutrition for Health and Health Care. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth /Thomson Learning, 2001. 35.

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This page created 09 Nov 2012 18:59
Last updated 21 Jul 2016 22:12

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