Don’t just read the headlines about that processed foods-autism study

Photo: SHansche (iStock)

How many of us have retweeted an article without reading it? Or mentioned a story we “saw” today that was just a quick-scrolling chyron at the bottom of some cable broadcast? When the topic of that story is something like rude seagulls, the stakes are low. But when the topic of such a report is a scientific study that purportedly draws a link between processed foods and autism, we owe it to ourselves to read the full story—and maybe do a bit of additional research ourselves.

This week, myriad news outlets reported on a study from the University Of Central Florida that, the headlines declare, points to an association between processed foods and autism. WebMD’s alarm-bells headline is characteristic of the coverage: “Processed Foods in Pregnancy May Be Tied to Autism.” I anticipate a wave of Americans shaming pregnant shoppers at the grocery register, knocking potato chips out of their hands with narrow-eyed stares.

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But what the headlines miss are the limitations inherent in the actual study. In fact, the study did not find a link between pregnant people’s junk-food diets and higher rates of autism. It found that applying a chemical preservative found in processed foods to lab-cultured dishes of neurons had adverse effects on said cells, in a way that is related to characteristics of the brains of children with autism.

Science-Based Medicine, a non-profit website run by doctors with the goal of “promoting high standards of science in medicine.,” calls the leap from the study’s conclusions to the headlines “highly misrepresentative.” Author Steven Novella, an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine and host of the podcast The Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe, points out several reasons the processed food-autism study is limited in its conclusions; namely that it was conducted on lab-grown cells, not humans, and that the chemical in question, PPA, is not normally found in the human GI tract. Give his analysis a full read, as he raises numerous points that the scary headlines don’t address. “At best,” he concludes, “The current study shows a potential mechanism of action if an actual link is discovered—but it does not establish a link.”

As a reporter myself, I know how hard it is to summarize complex topics into a clear, interesting headline. (And I write about food, to say nothing of those who cover the nuances of science, immigration, economics, etc.) Given that few truths can be conveyed in a mere headline, it behooves us as news consumers to do our due diligence in seeking out more information before jumping to conclusions. Or worse, feeling empowered to judge a pregnant person for what’s in their grocery cart.

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About the author

Kate Bernot

Kate Bernot is managing editor at The Takeout and a certified beer judge.