Swimming too low

Are you fish or fowl?

This is a well-known marketing maxim. The idea is simple: you can’t present yourself to the world as both, so decide on a clear message and stay with it. Because if you’re a fish, no matter how successful you are, a stroll through the barnyard is a bad idea.

I was reminded of this when I was browsing through the current issue (Sept. 2003) of Consumer Reports magazine (CR). Once again, CR editors have riled me up with half-baked health advice when they should be sticking to their area of expertise, which they’re very good at: testing and rating laptops, SUVs, etc.

In this one issue, CR had two chances to get health and nutrition information right, and in both cases they got it wrong. And when I compared one item to the other, it left me wondering: Is this thing supposed to swim or fly?

The replacements

I don’t know about you, but I find the term “meal-replacement drink” to be a little suspicious. It’s like saying, “Your regularly scheduled meal couldn’t make it. But here’s something that sort of passes for a meal.”

In the “Up Front” feature of September’s CR, taste-testers rate four meal-replacement drinks: Yoplait Nouriche, Frulatte, Slim-Fast, and Snapple-a-Day. Yoplait Nouriche won the tasters’ approval, and the article ends with the recommendation to choose the Yoplait over the others.

Now – if the editors of CR are truly covering the health and nutrition beat, how can they possibly recommend a product like Yoplait Nouriche, which contains 46 grams of sugar? That’s equivalent to about 10 teaspoons of sugar. And they admit this in the article, but still recommend it anyway!

Meanwhile, in keeping with the outmoded and misguided mainstream tunnel-vision on the “importance” of low-fat, they point out that these drinks qualify as low-fat or no-fat. But they never mention carbohydrates. And I can understand why, because with 54 net grams of carbohydrates, a single bottle of Yoplait Nouriche practically qualifies as carbo-loading. That’s the carb equivalent to almost 2 bagels!

So in terms of nutrition, there’s simply no way you could reasonably consider 54 grams of carbs and 10 teaspoons of sugar to be a healthy meal replacement.

Missing details

Meanwhile, CR editors want you to be aware that you may be encouraging disease by choosing the wrong dietary supplement.

“Did you know?” asks the headline of a tiny box on the CR Health page toward the end of the September issue. Contained in the box is a warning that supplements of ” beta-carotene (a source of vitamin A) may increase your risk of disease.”

This warning is prompted by a study I told you about on June 16th in the e-Alert “Blinders in Place,” in which Cleveland Clinic Foundation researchers reviewed several trials that evaluated the effectiveness of vitamin A in preventing death or stroke due to cardiovascular events. What the little CR warning box doesn’t mention is that most of the participants in the studies either already had heart or blood vessel disease or were at increased risk of such problems.

For reasons that are not yet clear, a high intake of beta-carotene has been shown to complicate heart problems for smokers. Two of the beta-carotene trials examined in this research included subjects who were smokers (which qualified them for the study as having a risk factor for heart disease). In both trials the increased risk of death occurred mostly with smokers taking large doses of beta-carotene, and it was this set of statistics that resulted in the widely reported blanket claim that beta-carotene may increase the risk of death.

So if you’re a non-smoker who is not at risk of heart disease, will you be inviting disease if you take a standard dose of beta-carotene? Of course not. But these important details are not included in the CR warning.

When chickens go swimming

With the beta-carotene item, CR based their warning on information picked up from a news wire service, and simply took it at face value without questioning the details. And with the meal-replacement taste test, they removed their “health” hat and glossed over the nutritional details. Is that any way to serve consumers who need sound health advice?

If you’re going to provide a health alert, then you’ve got to explore more than just the taste of quickie meals. And if you’re going to provide a consumer report, then don’t waste our time with half-baked health warnings that have no more insight than rewrites of wire stories.

That’s the thing that bothers me most: that CR readers may be acting on such wobbly health advice, trusting that CR wouldn’t let them down.

Beware the fish that gives you advice about feathers.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute


“Does a Meal in a Bottle Beat One in a Can?” Consumer Reports, September 2003, consumerreports.org

“Beta-Carotene Dangers” Consumer Reports, September 2003, consumerreports.org

“Use of Antioxidant Vitamins for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: Meta-Analysis of Randomised Trials” The Lancet 2003; 361: 2017-23

“Study Finds Antioxidant Vitamins Useless” Emma Ross, Associated Press, 6/12/03, ap.org

“Gram Carb Counter” Atkins.com

“Yoplait Nutritional Facts” Yoplaitusa.com