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Author Assails Talk Shows for Spreading Nutrition Misinformation

March 20, 1986|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

Television talk shows are the primary source of nutrition misinformation in this country and are routinely promoting quackery or suspect health advice, according to Dr. Stephen Barrett, a practicing psychiatrist and author who monitors the rapidly expanding field of alternative health care.

The Allentown, Pa.-based physician is particularly critical of the nationally syndicated show "Donahue," calling the popular program "unbalanced" with a "sense for unorthodoxy."

"The Donahue show offers a more diverse form of nutrition and health misinformation than any other (media) source in the United States. . . . It is the worst," he said during an interview intended to promote a recent Consumers Union magazine story he wrote, titled "The Vitamin Pushers."

A spokeswoman for the Donahue show in New York said the program does offer "many ideas" on nutrition, but no particular type of health regimen or treatment is endorsed.

"We (the program's personnel) do not espouse any medical ideas," said Penny Rotheiser. "The show offers as much information as possible to consumers, and they decide for themselves. We might do one theory on nutrition this week, but then we'll do another (contrasting view) the following week."

In addition to television, the primary sources of suspect nutritional and health advice, Barrett said, are radio talk shows, direct mail solicitations, newspaper advertisements and diet books.

Cited for Efforts

Barrett is the editor of the Nutrition Forum newsletter and has received the Food and Drug Administration's Citation Award for Public Service as a result of his efforts to expose nutrition quackery.

He said television talk shows not only provide a sympathetic forum for unconventional health views, but also fail to offer rebuttals from the credentialed medical community. As an example of the questionable information offered on these programs, Barrett cited a "Donahue" segment during which a guest discussed, at length, his opposition to vaccinating children against deadly diseases.

Rotheiser acknowledged that portions of the medical community have been angered by various "Donahue" broadcasts, but she said the dissatisfaction stems from the show's recommendation that consumers always seek more than one physician's opinion when confronted with serious illnesses.

"No side is ever going to say that they got total representation (on the show)," she said. "Many people think us highly pro-consumer. However, this is not the Dr. Donahue show."

Viewers May Be Receptive

Programs such as "Donahue" and "The Merv Griffin Show" have a responsibility to present traditional views along with alternative health information, Barrett said, because some viewers in their large audiences may be susceptible to miracle cure claims or fad diets.

The power of these shows to influence consumers was underlined recently after author Stuart M. Berger appeared on "Donahue." Within three days after the broadcast, 30,000 copies of his book, "Dr. Berger's Immune Power Diet" (New American Library: $14.95) were sold. The book offers an eating plan that caters to the public's fear of AIDS, Barrett said.

However, there is little scientific evidence that would support claims, such as Berger's, that an individual could strengthen his or her immune system with vitamin or mineral supplements, Barrett said.

"There is a lot of money to be made in quackery and little or no money to be made in fighting it," Barrett said.

Tale of Tomatoes--There apparently is something good to be said for those tomatoes that are picked green and then sprayed with ethylene gas for color. Researchers from the University of Georgia found that an expert panel had difficulty distinguishing between the vine-ripened tomato and the gassed-red version in several different categories.

A.V.A. Resurreccion and R.L. Shewfelt reported in the Journal of Food Science that when judged on color, sweetness, acidity, juiciness, flavor and overall preference, the ethylene-ripened process was rated slightly higher than the fruit left on the vine till signs of color appeared.

The key to the testing was that all the tomatoes involved were allowed to stand at room temperature for seven days, a procedure that allows the flavors and textures to develop. This short-term storage allowed the gassed tomatoes to acquire desirable characteristics.

The findings are important for the produce industry, which has been excoriated by consumers and food critics for marketing tasteless and rock-hard tomatoes. The tests conducted in Georgia were in response to U.S. Department of Agriculture research, which found a lot of consumer dissatisfaction with tomatoes.

Advocates of vine ripening can take solace in at least one aspect of the Georgia study. In the categories of color and juiciness, the gassed tomatoes scored a distinct second to the sun-ripened.

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