In the organic food industry, a recent shift driven by pressure from well-meaning activist groups has influenced regulators to take a closer look at some of the additives in currently allowed on shelves. While savvy purchasers have historically used their buying power to lobby for changes from above when it comes to what is and isn’t allowed in mass produced products, today, more than ever before, everyday citizens have the privilege of taking the results of scientific studies into their own hands to influence real change on a global scale.

However, when sea-change movements take action to ban certain ingredients with little regard for the alternatives that might replace them, a ban on one product often means that less well-vetted additives are added in its place. On the Internet, where everyone can assert opinions on the same scale, unfortunately a vocal minority’s concerns are often based on novice interpretation of relatively unfounded popular science.

Fact vs. fiction: What makes a study credible?

All science—flawed or factual—can be framed to fit an agenda. When reading food studies, it’s especially important to keep in mind these simple questions before rushing to the pitchforks:

  • Is this scenario realistic? Are the scientists testing an additive in the same concentration, serving size and administration as in the food we consume? Or are the researchers perhaps using excessive quantities to artificially inflate side-effects?
  • What is actually being tested here? It’s easy to conflate the negatives associated with a derivative of a compound with the compound itself. Not all findings can be generalized.
  • Who is telling me this? Just because a report looks official does not mean it has been peer-reviewed. Always be sure to back suspicious conclusions against similar data to ensure the findings expressed in one summary have actually been repeated.
  • What do the words really mean? What in the world is oxidane? How about dihydrogen monoxide? Both are terms sometimes used to refer to plain old H2O—pure water. Everything has a scientific name in the lab, and knowing the language used in a study can make a world of difference in how “scary” the results might sound.
  • What is the context? Sometimes science is used to lobby for changes that are only tangentially related to the actual findings of the research quoted. Consider all studies apart from whoever is quoting them to determine if a claim has enough weight to stand on its own.

In short: While the Internet is a great space to use to hold the powers that be more accountable for irresponsible processes, beware of fear-mongering interpretations and independent blogs claiming to provide “the facts” without doing a little digging yourself.