Reader’s Digest’s Shameless Click-Bait Harms Consumers

It’s popular to use catchy, click-bait titles on the internet. Writers know it lures readers in and drives traffic. But it is irresponsible to use scary headlines that provide false information and recommendations that fly in the face of science. Reader’s Digest shamelessly does so in a recent slideshow [8 Fish You Should Never Order in a Restaurant], which MSN republished.

Fish is a healthy choice and data shows that many people don’t eat nearly enough. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans instruct Americans to eat at least 2-3 servings of seafood each week because it’s rich in important nutrients, such as vitamins B12 and D, iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorous, selenium and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids called EPA and DHA.

So why does Reader’s Digest steer people away from seafood, instead of encouraging them to eat more?

By listing many of the top U.S. seafood choices – that are indeed healthy and safe – as menu items to stay away from, Reader’s Digest contributes to the very real public health crisis of low seafood intake. A Harvard study finds low seafood consumption is the second-biggest dietary contributor to premature death in the U.S., taking 84,000 lives each year. For perspective, low intake of fruits and vegetables takes 58,000 lives each year.

So broad and misguided is Reader’s Digest’s effort that it even takes aim healthy, affordable and accessible staples like canned tuna, unnecessarily segregating tuna types and confusing consumers who already don’t eat enough seafood as it is.

The reasoning behind Reader Digest’s recommendations are almost laughable. Here are a few examples:

1.     Author Carina Wolff says you should never order farmed Atlantic salmon at a restaurant, claiming among many things that wild salmon has more omega-3 fatty acids than the farmed variety. She is wrong. The science is clear, both wild-caught and farmed-raised salmon are a healthy choice:

  • A USDA study conducted at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center involving farmed salmon reported that “…consuming farm-raised salmon was an excellent way to increase omega-3 fatty acids in the blood to levels that corresponded to reduced heart disease risk.”
  • The USDA Nutrient Database  actually lists farm-raised salmon as higher in omega-3s than wild-caught salmon. Both are significant food sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • The scientific report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee thoroughly explored the health and safety of wild-caught and farm-raised fish. The committee, comprised of 14 highly credentialed doctors and registered dietitians, concluded that, “based on risk/benefit comparisons, either farmed or wild-caught seafood are appropriate choices to consume to meet current Dietary Guidelines for Americans for increased seafood consumption.” This is because “for the majority of commercial wild and farmed species, neither the risks of mercury nor organic pollutants outweigh the health benefits of seafood consumption, such as decreased cardiovascular disease risk and improved infant neurodevelopment.”
  • In an expose about farmed salmon by 60 Minutes, Dr. Sanjay Gupta concluded, “There are people who say I only order wild salmon—I guess the question would be, why are you doing that? If you’re doing it because you think it’s better for your health, for health reasons, you’d have a hard time making that case.”

2.     Ms. Wolff suggests readers avoid certain types of tuna because of pollutants like PCBS. Does she realize that all seafood (not just tuna) contributes to just 9% of PCB intake from food in the U.S? According to independent, peer-reviewed published research available in the Journal of the American Medical Association, common everyday items like butter and even chicken account for far more PCBs that seafood. “Among adults, major dietary sources of PCBs and dioxins are beef, chicken, and pork (34% of total TEQ); dairy products (30%); vegetables (22%); fish and shellfish (9%); and eggs (5%). Dietary sources are similar for children.” Would Ms. Wolff also suggest Americans avoid vegetables when they dine out at a restaurant? I don’t think so. Context in reporting matters.

3.     Ms. Wolff suggests readers avoid “Vietnamese catfish.” To note, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not acknowledge “Vietnamese catfish” as an acceptable market name for pangasius, the species she is writing about. Ironically, Ms. Wolff discusses and warns consumers that pangasius can be labelled incorrectly on the menu, while she continues to call it “Vietnamese Catfish”… a blatantly incorrect label.

4.     Ms. Wolff also suggests that readers avoid swordfish because it contains too much mercury. In reality, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend that the general public avoid any seafood species because of mercury. There has never been a documented case of mercury toxicity from the normal consumption of commercial seafood, which includes swordfish, in any peer-reviewed medical journal in the U.S. The FDA does have advice for a small subset of the population – pregnant and breastfeeding women – to avoid a handful of species, including swordfish, but it is irresponsible and incorrect to generalize that recommendation to Americans outside of this sub-group.

The misinformation in this article goes on species after species. What’s clear is that it saw little fact-checking and an even smaller amount of nutrition science.

The bottom-line: Go eat more seafood, confident that you’re making a healthy choice. And avoid internet click-bait articles that tell you otherwise.