Raw Chocolate Milk

A Cautionary Tale of Hyping Chocolate Milk for Concussions

An unfolding story about the University of Maryland hyping chocolate milk for concussions might easily be dismissed as an anomaly. Doing so would be a serious mistake.

Shortly before Christmas, the university issued a press release that claimed:

Fifth Quarter Fresh, a new, high-protein chocolate milk, helped high school football players improve their cognitive and motor function over the course of a season, even after experiencing concussions.

This release has many problems. At the top of the list is the fact that it promotes unpublished, uncontrolled data. It appears to be promoting a specific product and brand. And those are just the most glaring problems.

Very quickly, Health News Review published a scathing report on this release, giving it failing marks on nine out of ten criteria for responsible reporting on health research. A cascade of negative stories followed and within days the university initiated an institutional review of this situation.

This story is unusual indeed, but only because it combines so many issues into one case study. Such lapses can be found individually with appalling regularity. And despite suggestions that this might be an example of the food industry corrupting academic research, responsibility lies solely with university press offices that hype research, as the University of Maryland did in this case.

Philippa Sandall is an editor and author of diverse nutrition publications, including GI News. She commented on the sorry state of integrity in academic press releases on health research:

When I see nutrition headlines based on “a study,” I feel that the PhD Industry and academics have a lot to answer for in totally confusing the public about nutrition. They may get an enthusiasm badge but few would be awarded the ethics badge at cubs or scouts. And they can’t say “oh the PR people went over the top” because one (or all) of the writers will have approved the press release. All too often I get the feeling it is more about grants and promotions than good science communication or our health and wellbeing.

It’s convenient to point fingers at “big food.” But the truth is that hunger for headlines in obesity and nutrition research is a threat to scientific integrity that is vastly under appreciated.

Click here for more from Vox and here for more from Health News Review. Click here for the dubious press release that started this debacle.

Raw Chocolate Milk, photograph © Tracy Benjamin / flickr

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January 18, 2016

2 Responses to “A Cautionary Tale of Hyping Chocolate Milk for Concussions”

  1. January 18, 2016 at 9:45 am, Allen Browne said:

    Excellent, thought provoking, thank you.

    • January 18, 2016 at 10:25 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Allen. Good communication about health research is so important that it makes this kind of schlock particularly offensive.