News Coverage Contradicts Science on High Fructose Corn Syrup

February 4, 2014

Press Release

February 4, 2014

Contact: Robert Lichter, 571-319-0029 Ext 110

News Coverage Contradicts Science on High Fructose Corn Syrup

Media accounts contradicted the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ conclusion that HFCS and ordinary table sugar are equivalent in their composition and metabolism, according to a study released by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. According to CMPA President Dr. Robert Lichter, “The media still haven’t gotten the message from scientists that HFCS is essentially no different from any other nutritive sweetener.”

This study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University examined 567 news stories in 120 news outlets. It covered eleven one-month periods from 2004 to 2013 when significant scientific information was released on the health effects of HFCS. The results are based on 1512 statements by sources and reporters about the health effects of nutritive sweeteners.

Major Findings:

  • Since the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) issued a statement in 2012 concluding that HFCS and sucrose are equivalent in their metabolic and health effects, 71% of news sources have argued the opposite — that they are different.
  • When we examined five research reports that criticized HFCS and five that defended HFCS, over 90% of the coverage went to the reports that criticized HFCS
  • HFCS was portrayed as a proven cause of obesity or other adverse health effects by 37% of sources and as a suspected cause by 46%. Only 17% (one out of six) rejected a connection with adverse effects.
  • Five scientists accounted for almost half (43%) of all opinions from named experts. All five have been active in supporting public policies to limit consumption of nutritive sweeteners.
  • Most reporting on new studies failed to mention important details of the research, such as how the sample was selected, whether the results were statistically significant, and whether there was a causal relationship between HFCS and reported health effects.
  • Only one news story out of six placed the findings from a new study in the context of earlier findings on the same topic.

Our research concludes that HFCS was overwhelmingly portrayed in the media as a health risk which in some ways poses unique health risks among nutritive sweeteners, despite statements by leading scientific bodies to the contrary. Among a selection of research reports on both sides of the issue, coverage of information claiming that HFCS posed a unique health risk dramatically outpaced coverage of information questioning or challenging that claim.

In addition, the release of an official statement by the American Dietetic Association, a leading professional organization, was followed by coverage that emphasized voices arguing for the opposite conclusion. In this case, the news coverage did not reflect the scientific consensus.

We also documented some questionable aspects of the reporting on scientific studies and findings. A few publicly engaged scientists played an outsized role in the portrayal of expert information to the general public. And study findings were frequently reported without the detailed information news consumers would need to evaluate the findings for themselves.

Overall, the coverage placed news values above scientific values. Little attention was given to the broader context within which new findings are interpreted. To scientists, any new study represents one more piece in a puzzle. But the more newsworthy scientific findings seem, the more the media treats them as solving the entire puzzle.

This study was conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. It was supported by a grant from the Corn Refiners Association.


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