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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Not all white bread are equal

I respect Scientific American as an science communication institution - over they decades, they've evolved from the classic magazine to the myriad online avenues, from blogs to Twitter and podcasts. But I fear that in the zest to embrace the age of the soundbite, some of the care may be slipping. A recent 60-second podcast by Karen Hopkin reports on the potential "health benefits" of white bread. Most of these snappy one-offs are really a populist summarization of the results of a recent academic publication - in general, I approve of this, as the culture of scientific publication still favors dense writing that requires specialization just to read. However, simplification should not happen at the expense of accuracy.

Yes, this is white bread.
The report is about the unexpected association of Lactobacillus (a "healthy" marker in the microbiome) with the consumption of white bread, so it prominently begins with the mention of Wonder Bread. This, of course, is a byproduct of the America-centric nature of the target audience, to whom white bread is synonymous with Wonder Bread. But the study was conducted in Spain, and white bread in Europe is markedly different from the ubiquitous "glutenous slab".

So, how was the study conducted? The authors selected 27 female and 11 male volunteers, aged 56-67 years old, and asked them about what they recalled eating from a selection of 160 items within the past year. After the interview, they collected one stool sample, and analyzed it for DNA. It isn't just any 38 healthy individuals - the data is based on the recollection of middle-aged to older volunteers (heavily skewed to women) from their diets a full year prior, and the stool sample came from one time point.

Though not explicitly stated, the misled hordes of the internet now parrot the line about how white bread (somehow equivocating to Wonder Bread) can be a healthy item. But it is a correlation, and at best a promising line of research. But I am dismayed that science journalism tends to lean towards this need to sell a particular story frame, toying with the very edges of veracity, often misleading lay readers to the wrong conclusion, by selectively glossing over details, or (as in this case) introducing "facts" that weren't in the original paper to begin with. I cannot call this outright lying, but its effects can be more insidious. In the name of "spicing up" a story, a writer can pretty invert the conclusions of a study or report, manipulating the expectations and emotions of the reader. This is a powerful skill, and should be used judiciously.

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