Science Experts Warn About a Spreading Condition: “Single Study Syndrome”

Bites of information from a single study, and a few sensational headlines, can have tremendous impact on how consumers perceive health, nutrition and food safety. These are among the conclusions of a recent conversation we had with scientific experts.

An activist group’s “Dirty Dozen,” which identifies produce with the highest levels of pesticide residues, is a prime example of that impact. Identifying fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residues could lead people to consume less of these nutritious foods based on the perceived risk, even if the actual risk is negligible.

Dr. Carl Winter, PhD, Extension Food Toxicologist and Vice Chair, Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California, has identified common traps people fall into when interpreting these messages.

The first trap involves the notion that consumers often ignore how “the dose makes the poison.” It’s the amount of exposure to a chemical, he said, not its presence or absence that determines the potential for harm.

 The second trap is that people assume government standards for the levels of substances in foods are only based on health. In fact, many are based on agricultural practices, manufacturing practices, detection capability or the levels at which these substances naturally occur.

The third trap is how regulatory standards for different foods are not automatically comparable. Sometimes health-based standards reflect food consumption estimates and may not be appropriate between foods with large differences in consumption (i.e. water vs. wine). For instance, a study found levels of arsenic in California wines to be 100 times higher than standards set for water. Comparing the standards and proclaiming a health risk is deceiving because consumption of water is estimated to be much higher than consumption of wine.

Dr. Kevin Folta, professor and chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, took the discussion further.

“Sound science sees a few articles steadily published over a longer period of time building upon research," he said.  "Media coverage is the opposite. Reporters will make a big splash about the initial discovery but don’t always continue to report on follow-up studies. The first big splash is all people remember. Contrary evidence and voices that soften the story are ignored, especially over time. Activists take advantage of this cycle,” he noted.

Folta also pointed out how the gold standard of science is getting research published. Most journals have a vigorous review process before new research is accepted as sound and published.  However, “predatory” publishers will accept papers for publication for a fee that lack scientific rigor. Additionally, activist agendas can hijack publications that appear legitimate.

For example, Folta presented a study published in Reproductive Toxicology that claimed to find that pesticide residues used on food produced using biotechnology can be passed onto an unborn fetus. Folta pointed out several criticisms of the study and explained how additional research was never published to further build upon or verify the study. Regardless, sensational headlines contributed to some public distrust and confusion about biotech crops.

As science communicators, how can we help win public trust?  Folta suggested several techniques. First off, take the time to understand the public’s fears and concerns. Suggest that “one-off” studies are dangerous sources of information, and carefully look at the journals where scientific research is being published.

We can also encourage consumers to look for studies that build upon findings of previous work. Good science produces a constant stream of research that verifies and continues to explore a given issue.