This is Part 1 of a special guest blog post by Sarah MacLeod, who has an MSc in Cardiovascular Physiology and Biophysics from Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada). Her article was selected to appear on the Altmetric blog, following the conclusion of a Interactions-style blogging project run by Dalhousie’s Department of Pharmacology and Altmetric (more details here).
The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.
– David Ogilvy
The phrase “consumer awareness” brings to mind how incredibly fortunate most of us are to have an excess of choices at our disposal when shopping for products in every market, from local vs. organic vs. gluten-free foods to Samsung vs. Apple vs. Blackberry phones. The extensive availability of the Internet has also allowed the average consumer to search through the details and effectively compare their choices before making a purchase or signing on the dotted line. While the general public may now be more perceptive of the inspirations behind advertising and its effects, there are still many hidden secrets on the proverbial shelves. That’s where the scientific community comes in. Parts 1 and 2 of this post will cover a few interesting examples of how the scientific world has been able to uncover the dangers in well-known products, thereby helping to strengthen public awareness.
Operation Shed Light
Indoor tanning has been globally popular since the 1980s, and its use has only grown since then. The link between sun damage and skin cancers has often been discussed, and while a short questionnaire is given to consumers upon entering a salon to determine the time of exposure and strength of protective lotions to be used, business owners have not taken on extra responsibility to ensure safety. It is therefore up to the consumer to look after their own well-being and the scientist to sort through the lotion packages and protective goggles to find the truth.
An updated meta-analysis of the evidence connecting skin cancers and sunbed use was authored by scientists from the International Prevention Research Institute and European Institute of Oncology and published in July 2012 in the BMJ. The numbers were described in terms of relative risk, where the probability of the event when exposed is divided by the probability for the event when not exposed. The statistics translated to a 20% increased risk in developing cutaneous melanoma for those who were ever users of a tanning bed. This risk was doubled when tanning bed use started before the age of 35.
With such startling statistics, it’s not surprising that this paper received global attention, including coverage in a Cancer Research UK blog (see Altmetric article details page). On Twitter, the paper was shared by both the interested public and doctors. Colorado’s Eagle County Public Health account tweeted that “America needs to get over the idea of a ‘healthy’ tan”. A self-proclaimed Jersey girl also ironically tweeted that the evidence may mean that “we can ban those death traps”.
It appeared in this case that the Canadian politicians agreed with the doctors that the tanned look is just “not worth it”. Subsequent changes to laws in certain provinces made it illegal for minors to use tanning beds. With 30,000 to 40,000 cases each year of skin cancer in the province of Ontario alone, it is clear that at least in Canada, this research will be vital for preventing disease.
Variety is the Spice of Life
In March 2012, a “pink slime” byproduct was discovered in ground beef, marking an important transition in open knowledge and consumer behaviour. Not only did the U.S. Department of Agriculture make a new rule that packaged meat had to carry Nutrition Facts labels, but consumers have since been much more diligent in checking ingredients. PepsiCo, Starbucks and Kraft (to name a few) have all started to “filter” their product ingredients to avoid bad publicity. While famous chef Jamie Oliver helped to make it public knowledge that some parts of franchise sold hamburgers were “washed” with ammonium hydroxide, it was actually a group from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio that had authored, 4 years earlier, a study in Annals of Diagnostic Pathology about questionable burger contaminants (see Altmetric details page).
In their study, pathologists Prayson et al. used routine techniques employed in tissue study to evaluate the condition of 8 brands of fast food burgers in order to test the consumer assumption that “the burger they eat is composed primarily of meat”. It is interesting to note that this study was a follow-up to one done on hot dog evaluation, where the wieners’ meat content was determined to be 2.9 to 21.2%. Similar to the hot dogs, meat content of the burgers was lower than would be hoped; between 2.1 and 14.8%. While about half of the burger was water (explained as either from the tissue itself or from the manufacturing process) there were a few conspicuous elements, including bone, cartilage and plant material. For some these other “natural” ingredients may be expected, however a quarter of the burgers also had Sarcocystis parasites.
The public’s reactions to the paper were strong. For an author of the science blog Byte Size Biology, the findings were shocking enough to title a blog post “Hamburgers are pathological”. Facebook was also flooded with shares of this paper by users ranging in age and affiliation, and even included posts from holistic health pages and chiropractor clinics. While one Twitter user claimed that “if replicated and confirmed” the evidence would be “disturbing”, other readers find eating connective tissue “gross!” with after one set of experiments and have resorted back to the “ignorance is bliss” mindset:
— Megan McCloskey (@MegMcCloskey) July 1, 2013
Thanks to the Cleveland Clinic pathologists, carnivores got a very clear message: that meat may not be all that it seems.
Part 2 of Sarah’s blog post will continue next week.