Veganism kills!: Bias against veganism in the media
Ask anyone the hardest part of making healthy choices, and they’re likely to point to the perplexing contradictions in health news. Parsing research studies is a challenge, so we rely on the media to pass on the relevant information.
Unfortunately, when they aren’t confusing people, journalists often misunderstand the research or deliberately mislead the public. “Bacon better than lettuce!” the headlines scream. The next day a panicked title reads: “World Health Organization declares processed meat worse than cigarettes!”
Who should we believe? Do these studies contradict each other? Or are people with personal or financial incentives deliberately misleading us? Is there bias against veganism in the media?
Bias against veganism in the media
As a particularly egregious example, look at the following headlines, all generated following Tuesday’s announcement of a new research paper from J. Thomas Brenna of Cornell University:
“Long term vegetarian diet changes human DNA raising risk of cancer and heart disease” – Sarah Knapton, Science Editor at The Telegraph
Vegetarian diet ‘raises risk of heart disease and cancer’ – Katie Strick, The Daily Mail
‘Vegetarian Gene’ Linked To Colon Cancer – Sky News
What? A vegetarian diet raises your risk of heart disease and cancer? That sounds strange. I though vegetables were good for you. But the news comes from reliable sources, right?
Frighteningly, these headlines are just a smattering of the misleading articles I ran across while preparing this post.
I know there is some public bias against plant-based diets, but I’ve always been skeptical of “conspiracies” against vegetarian or vegan diets. I know milk and egg producers advertise in our schools and lobby our governments, but the idea that their influence extends to independent media? Preposterous!
The actual research
Before we delve into how journalists manipulated Brenna’s team’s research, let’s examine the actual Press Release from Oxford University Press’ Journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution:
In a new evolutionary proof of the old adage, ‘we are what we eat’, Cornell University scientists have found tantalizing evidence that a vegetarian diet has led to a mutation that — if they stray from a balanced omega-6 to omega-3 diet — may make people more susceptible to inflammation, and by association, increased risk of heart disease and colon cancer.
The study tells us that, over thousands of years (not a single lifetime of eating vegetarian or vegan food, or going a little heavy on the veggies, as these media news snippets imply), the genes of people living near equatorial zones seem to have developed a “vegetarian allele” making it easier for them to obtain nutrients like Omega 6 and 3 from plant foods. This adaptation affects other things too, and it means that when people carrying this allele abandon their traditional diet, they are more susceptible to colorectal cancer and heart disease.
When research is explained by uninformed and possibly biased journalists
Now, did you come to that conclusion based on the headlines above? Probably not. Katie Strick’s headline from The Daily Mail is downright misleading – the study’s authors have made it clear that NOT following a vegetarian diet causes these people to suffer from cancer and heart disease, whereas her headline actually claims a vegetarian diet “raises risk.”
Sarah Knapton of The Telegraph – from whom I expected somewhat better things – also misses the mark, claiming that a “[l]ong term vegetarian diet changes human DNA raising risk of cancer and heart disease.” Exactly how “long-term” is very unclear (it is in fact over hundreds of generations), as is how it “raises risk”. Individuals who possess the allele are at risk only if they abandon their traditional primarily vegetarian diet and eats large amounts of animal products and heavily processed foods (if you are looking for easily observable evidence of this, simply look at the health of Asians living in the West with their relatives back home, or African-Americans in comparison to native Africans).
If you read Knapton’s article, she not only implies a vegetarian diet is unhealthy, she claims that the allele “hinders the production of beneficial Omega 3 fatty acid.” If she read Brenna’s research, she would have observed he is arguing that the allele helped these largely vegetarian societies enjoy more “efficient synthesis” of Omega 3 from plant sources. In contrast, the Inuit populations studied did not have this adaptation. They got their Omega 3 from the fish in their diets. In other words, the allele assisted the vegetarian societies in using the Omega 3 found in plants – the opposite of what Knapton claims in her article.
I won’t go into depth examining the questionable statements made in Knapton’s article, but suffice it to say, she goes on to cite nearly every rumour or research that appears to highlight the shortcomings of veganism. The overall thrust of her article is that a vegetarian or vegan diet is more dangerous than the Standard American or british diet, and likely unsafe. This goes against most current research, and definitely reveals a bias against veganism.
If the headlines don’t make sense, read the abstract
Mischaracterization of research is sadly pervasive in health and science headlines. In spite of journalism’s stated goal of dispassionately and evenhandedly disseminating information to the public, writers often fall victim to advertisers, afraid to offend lest they lose their jobs. The last thing these dying newspapers need is a host of farmers and food companies threatening to pull their advertising dollars. Far safer to risk the ire of the handful of scientists and plant-based eaters. And since most journalists are meat-eaters, it’s hard for them not to have any bias against veganism.
Suffice it to say, when it comes to nutritional news, it’s wise to return to the original source and draw your own conclusions. You maybe surprised by what you find.
To read the original research from Dr. J. Thomas Brenna et. al, the full pdf of the study cited above is currently available free from the Journal of Microbiology and Evolution from Oxford University Press.