Commentary

Media Bias?

By Thomas R. DeGregori
November 2, 2002
In late October the top story under health on the BBC Web site was entitled “Food additives ‘cause tantrums’ ” and referred to “research carried out by the independent watchdog, the Food Commission.” We were told that the study “suggests” that “additives in popular snacks can cause hyperactivity and tantrums in young children.” The BBC was doing a little sleight of hand, however, as the facts show.

Checking on the Food Commission, one finds that it is an advocacy Non-governmental Organization (NGO) that, among other causes, as one would expect, opposes genetically modified food. The “study” gave a group of children food with the additives for two weeks and gave them the same food for two weeks with a placebo instead of the additives. It then depended on the subjective judgment of the parents as to the behavioral changes in the children. Because there was no mention of “double blind” (do the NGOs even know what that means), one wonders whether the parents knew whether the children were being fed the additive or the placebo? This could possibly compound the subjective element already inherent in the “study.”

Anyone who has watched manic, technophobic adults trying to “protect” their children from the unseen dangers in the environment, knows why those children have tantrums. It wasn’t until two thirds of the way through the BBC posting that one learned that knowledgeable authorities might question the scientific validity of the study. Even then, after a short paragraph or two, the scientist cited suggested that if parents are concerned, they should avoid foods with these additives for their children.

One could ask the question as to why reputable media carry scare stories based on studies of questionable merit? If, in the name of “balanced coverage,” they deem it necessary to report these alleged findings, must they give them such prominent coverage in a manner that appears to give them a legitimacy that they do not warrant?

The BBC story follows several weeks of semi-hysteria about the dangerous carcinogens in French fries and potato chips. Needless to say the NGO food police rode this one for all that it was worth. On Oct. 1, the New York Times began its story, “Scientists have found a clue to the chemical reaction that may cause potato chips, French fries and other fried or baked starchy foods to build up high levels of a possible cancer-causing substance.” We now learn that baked goods may also contain this “possible cancer-causing substance.” We then learn that “the possible carcinogen, acrylamide, may form when a naturally occurring amino acid, asparagine, is heated with certain sugars like glucose.” This would include the Maillard reaction of non-enzymatic browning in baking bread.

Having just read a soon-to-be posted and/or printed report by distinguished toxicologists discounting the danger from acrylamide at the dosage that we would ingest, we need not explore the issue of actual threat to health. But we can question the media coverage and the use of it by the food police.

Asparagine was the first amino acid to be identified. Louis-Nicolas Vauquelin (1763-1829) and Pierre Jean Robiquet (1780 -1840) isolated asparagine, from asparagus in 1806. Asparagine is one of 20 naturally occurring amino acids in all proteins. As one would expect, being an amino acid, asparagine is found in most of our foods with some like grains (wheat and rye), spinach and other vegetables. We are in trouble when we have to try to avoid amino acids.

To those who believe that we do not have genes in our food unless they are put there by biotechnologists, we now may have those who want amino acid-free food or at least have them uncooked. We await the warnings on dangers of stir-fry and baked bread. Raw bread dough anyone or how about air and distilled water for dinner tonight? But be careful with that carcinogenic oxygen!

Thomas R. DeGregori is professor of economics at the University of Houston and the author of two recently released books, “Bountiful Harvest” (Cato Institute) and “The Environment, Our Natural Resources and Modern Technology” (Iowa State Press).