The New Sensationalist
What has happened to the New Scientist? It has featured prominently on our Worthwhile Links page for a number of years. We describe it as "Simply the best science site there is." The current issue, however, leads us to experience a feeling not dissimilar to that of being let down by an old and trusted friend. In place of defence of the scientific enterprise that NS has traditionally championed we find a lurid, sensational cover more typical of Hello magazine or the red top tabloids — Can Fast Food Alter Your Brain in the Same Was as Tobacco and Heroin? — a largely rhetorical question since we are urged to believe that it clearly can. (The article is fortunately not available in the online edition of NS).
The BBC and the Telegraph certainly concluded as much with headlines Fast food 'as addictive as heroin' and Junk food 'may lead to eating addiction' respectively. Note the use of inverted commas around contentious bits — and old trick of subeditors to beef up an otherwise limp story by quoting the source rather than the real conclusion that should be drawn.
At the heart of the New Scientist's apparent attempt to appeal more directly to those attracted to the Daily Mail school of misinformation are a couple of small scale studies, including one by John Hoebel at Princeton University on an unspecified number of rats. Those whose diet consisted of 25% sugar became, apparently, distressed when their sugar 'fix' was withdrawn. "The implication is that some animals — and by extension some people — can become overly dependent on sweet food", he said. And all of this, of course, is placed in the context of the New York janitor who sued McDonald's and a number of other burger chains for causing his diabetes and double heart-attack.
So now, do we have proof — the smoking gun of the fast food industry that we are so eager to blame for every dietary and nutritional malfunction that might afflict us? The NS certainly hints at this and the author, Diane Martindale, a freelance writer, also from New York, concludes with:
"The argument has a long way to go. But chances are it won't get the chance to mature naturally. Some time soon the allegation that fast food is addictive will be made in court, and once that happens the terms of the debate are out of the scientists' hands. It wont make for a scholarly discussion. But it is still a debate worth having"
This is both bizarre and perverse. If there is a danger that the debate will be hijacked by litigants and lawyers, and wrested away from proper scientific debate, what possible function can this sensationalist treatment of a minor and as yet unreplicated study serve except to fuel that very process?
The four page article, including gratuitous close-ups of a cheeseburger, contains only one subhead — and that simply says 'Sugar junkies'. There is some brief, and rather confusing, explanation of the role of neurotransmitters in the brain and the release of opioids under certain conditions, including when eating some types of food, and not just so-called 'junk' food. A nicely cooked slice of goose foie gras will probably get those opioids levels up nicely. Surprisingly, however, there is no mention of one of the most significant causes of increased levels of opioids in the form of endorphins — literally, endogenous morphine — that of aerobic exercise. The 'buzz' that results from such strenuous physically activity is likened by many people, and women in particular, to the sheer pleasure of a sexual orgasm.
So, if these neurochemical effects are, in some vague way, a bit like those that result from an injection of heroin, what are we to do — close down all the gyms and keep-fit classes, along with burger bars and anything that purveys food known to create a mood of well-being, for after all that is what this neurochemistry is really all about, the creation a sense of pleasure? More importantly, why is the New Scientist taking us down this ridiculous cul de sac of speculation when it should be helping us to evaluate the merits or otherwise of a single study on sugar-fed rodents and the extent of its generalisability to human nutrition and behaviour.
You get the sense that there must clearly be something seriously wrong with this daft study when even Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest sees some flaws in it. Jacobson, you will remember, claims that America is 'drowning' in sugar, has called for 'sin' taxes on 'junk' food and ran a completely humourless campaign to prevent Coca Cola from using Harry Potter in its promotions — "Coke and other soft drinks are JUNK, and certainly not what Harry would want kids to drink." Here, however, even he is forced to conclude that he has not seen any evidence that fast food is addictive. "Considering the paucity of evidence, I think that the burden is on advocates of the addiction argument to provide evidence of addictiveness."
So, thanks a lot New Scientist for not only wasting our time but for generating further hysterical chatter that will only serve to diminish the role of truly scientific debate even further and play directly into the hands of the greed-driven lawyers who are the only people who may possibly benefit — something that Diane Martindale herself perversely acknowledged.
31 January 2003