Newspapers are often faulted for not printing enough good news, and a reader lodged a fresh complaint along that line last week.
“Why didn’t you have a story about the study that found eating pasta is good for you? TV had it, and it was all over social media. We spaghetti lovers would appreciate reading something good about a food that’s gotten a lot of criticism.”
I said I hadn’t heard about the study and would look into it. What I learned is that despite all the cheerful sound bites and headlines it generated (“Pasta isn’t fattening and can help you lose weight”) the study provides a prime example of how slapdash reporting can mislead more than inform.
It’s no mystery why the study was widely reported, especially by media that are fond of “click bait” and measure success by the number of eyeballs they attract online.
Pasta sales have dropped in the past decade as low-carbohydrate diets have gained favor. Many nutritionists disparage the food as “empty calories” without much benefit, especially for people wanting to lose weight.
Here was a study finding much the opposite, or at least that’s what many stories reported, such as this one posted by CNBC:
“Contrary to popular belief, pasta consumption does not make you fat, according to research into a staple of the Mediterranean — and much of the Western — diet. Researchers studied over 23,000 people in Italy and found that higher pasta intake was not associated with a raised body mass index — widely used as a measurement of a person’s body fat.
“Pasta consumption was negatively associated with body mass index, waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio with a lower prevalence of overweight and obesity.”
If you’re thinking this sounds a little too good to be true, you’re right.
Buried far down in a couple of the stories were these facts:
• A traditional serving of pasta in Italy is no more than three ounces, far smaller than what most people eat in the U.S., and less likely to have a high-calorie sauce. It’s usually served as a light first-course.
• Italians in the study were likely to follow the healthful Mediterranean diet, which is rich in olive oil, fish, fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains.
• Italian pastas have more whole grains than most American white-flour varieties. They’re higher in nutrients and fiber, making them beneficial in giving a sense of fullness that helps control calorie intake.
• The study was partly funded by Barilla, a leading pasta-maker.
I’m guessing that most pasta aficionados who were delighted to know about the study didn’t catch those facts that make it somewhat less impressive.
The best story about the study that I saw was written by Rachel Premack of The Washington Post.
She placed the positive findings in proper context and quoted New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, who said, “It depends on how much you eat and what you eat it with — a lot of pasta is going to be a weight problem.”
The Post story contrasted the 200-calorie serving typically eaten by Italians with larger portions served at American restaurants. Olive Garden’s fettucine alfredo, for example, has 1,480 calories and nearly three times the recommended daily amount of saturated fat.
The story also made note of Americans’ preference for refined pasta rather than whole grain. It cited a study of 45,000 Americans that found a relationship between lower whole-grain consumption and higher weight. It further noted that whole grains have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and stroke.
While the Italian study is less than a ringing endorsement for filling up on pasta, it’s good to see evidence that moderate consumption is healthy and can even help people lose weight.
What’s unhealthy are media reports that skim the surface of a study and misrepresent its findings.