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Food, science and the truth

Citation Needed members focus on accurate communication about what we eat

If you’ve ever used the crowd-sourced encyclopedia Wikipedia as a reference (go ahead, admit it), you might have seen a little note next to statements in some entries.

Site users can add “citation needed” to any claims made without a reliable reference.

It’s a way of politely saying “Says who?”

A group made up primarily of up-and-coming scientists at The Ohio State University has adopted “Citation Needed” as its official club name and a credo of sorts. These undergraduate and graduate students – most of them food scientists – want to clear the air when it comes to the bounty of information and misinformation surrounding what we eat, how it nourishes us and how it’s grown.

Tired of dealing with strangers, friends and family who are convinced food scientists are up to some real Frankenstein-level shenanigans with everything from tomatoes to breakfast cereal, the members of Citation Needed are intent on demystifying what really happens in the lab.

The members of Citation Needed are truth evangelists here at Ohio State and beyond – including in Columbus high schools where they are sharing their knowledge and unmasking the mysteries of food science.

Club president Haley Chatelaine, a doctoral student in human nutrition, said the group was formed to help students strengthen science and agriculture communications skills – to bridge the gap between what happens in food science laboratories and classrooms and what non-scientists know, or think they know, about the foods they eat.

“That means, for the scientists in our group, learning how to be engaging and concise and clear about the research that we do, and for people who aren’t scientists, learning how to critically evaluate claims that they see in the media,” Chatelaine said.

There’s no shortage of work for the group. There are plenty of weak, even terrible, nutrition claims in circulation.

“It does get frustrating for us, because we’re learning to evaluate claims. …Has (the study) been repeated? Has it been conducted in an appropriate sample? And is the question relevant?” Chatelaine said.

“Being able to help other people do that who maybe aren’t going to grad school, that’s important for us to learn how to do.”

At a recent visit to Columbus Central High School, a trio of club members explained a variety of food-related concepts to an attentive audience.

They touched on how food waste is not only costly to individuals, but that it contributes to overuse of other resources, including water and energy – and shared that about 20 percent of food bought by Americans each year is wasted. They doled out advice on meal planning to reduce waste, including “shopping” in your refrigerator first.

They surprised some of the students when they explained that many store-brand items are identical to, or even higher quality than, their brand-name counterparts. And they advised against pre-cut fruit and veggies at the grocery, because they tend to have a shorter shelf life.

The club members told the students about the beauty (and thrift) of whipping up a soup, casserole or stir-fry with produce and other ingredients that need to be used up before they spoil.

When it comes particularly to food and nutrition, these are people’s lives. These are people’s cultures. So listening to where they’re coming from and to their legitimate…emotional concerns is important in getting our logical, objective, fact-based messages out there.
Haley Chatelaine, outgoing president of Citation Needed

At previous sessions at the high school, Citation Needed members explored other areas of food science: how to find reliable information on the internet – while maintaining a healthy skepticism about nutrition news from questionable sources – and the importance of understanding food additives and what it means when a food label references GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or says the food is organic.

“Last time we were here, one of the students said he read that Hot Pockets could give him cancer, so we talked about how getting your information online is not always the best option, especially if it’s not from a reliable source,” said Hannah Mehle, a second-year graduate student in food science and the coordinator of the class visits.

Katie Eisel, the placement specialist at Columbus Central who worked with Citation Needed to coordinate the visits, said that the group’s lessons have been enlightening for the students, many of whom are preparing to set out on their own for the first time and will be making more of their own decisions about what food they buy and eat.

“We’ve loved it and our kids have loved it. They were especially interested in the food additives discussion,” she said, adding that several of the students have experienced cancer and other diseases in their families and were interested in how food choice might contribute to or protect against illness.

Added Mehle, “Food is inherently emotional and we all have these connections to it that are different. Our goal is not to tell them what to believe or what to think, but help them understand how to find reliable information and to learn about things they weren’t aware of.”

One of those lessons: If the headline says something like ‘Coffee will give you cancer,’ look for the source. Is there scientific evidence that’s cited? Has that evidence been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal? If not, maybe don’t change your habits based on this bit of information.

Eisel also commended the Citation Needed speakers for approaching their presentations in a manner that made sense for her student population, many of whom have struggled in school and who come from families who are strapped for cash and have to be frugal about their dining options.

“The last thing we wanted to do is come across as privileged university students,” Mehle said. “This is a drop-out prevention school we’ve been visiting, so sometimes their science background is not great. We’ve tried to more tailor it to their background.”

Kym Man, a doctoral student in sensory science, said that presenting to the high school crowd helped her practice sharing her knowledge with a different demographic than the graduate students with whom she’s used to interacting.

“We want to deliver information that is tailored to their needs and their style of communicating. The ultimate goal of being a food scientist is not just to make food better and more nutritious, but to educate the general public.”

Mallory Goggans, who is working on her master’s in food science and studying the health benefits of tomatoes, said the members of the group are intent on sharing what they know with an audience that extends far beyond the scientific community.

“The research we do is for not just the advancement of our career. What we do is important to everybody and it’s important to relay these things to the people who may benefit from this information.”

In addition to communicating accurate information about food, the club also focuses on bringing compassion to those conversations, Chatelaine said.

“When it comes particularly to food and nutrition, these are people’s lives. These are people’s cultures. So listening to where they’re coming from and to their legitimate…emotional concerns is important in getting our logical, objective, fact-based messages out there.”