Apr 05 2012
A few weeks ago, a news release by the Peanut Institute used a common misunderstanding fed by an accident of language to deceive us into thinking that its healthy product is even healthier.
The news release repackages the earlier announcement of the release of a massive study of food consumption and mortality by the Harvard School of Public Health which concludes that eating red meat is associated with a thirteen percent increased risk of death. That means that every time you eat red meat, you lower your life expectancy by increasing your chances of getting cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
As it turns out, nuts are the best food to substitute for meat. The study shows that replacing one serving of red meat with one serving of nuts per week reduces mortality risk by 19%. It’s a 14% reduction for poultry and whole grains; 10% for legumes and low fat dairy; and 7% for fish.
The news release keeps referring to the peanut as a “nut.” Some examples:
- The headline: “PEANUTS #1 NUT CONSUMED IN US”
- “Over half the nuts eaten in the US are peanuts…”
- “According to USDA data, peanuts account for about half of all nuts eaten in the US…”
But wait a minute! Peanuts (or goober peas as Burl Ives used to call them in that folk song) are a legume not a nut, which means they can only claim a 10% edge over red meat, not the 19% reduction of a real nut.
The Peanut Institute finally confesses the truth but not until it gives us quotes from a Harvard professor about the benefits of replacing animal protein with plant protein followed by a paragraph about the fact that eating peanuts and peanut butter can reduce the risk of heart attacks in half, but only “eating them five or more times each week.”
Only buried at the very end of the article do we get the fact that peanuts are not nuts, and we get it wrapped in more health claims: “With lots of nut and legume choices (peanuts are, technically, a legume), Americans are increasingly choosing peanuts and peanut butter.” Immediately afterwards, the release immediately calls peanuts a “nut” twice in the following sentence.
There can be no doubt that the Peanut Institute, as a matter of policy, tries to pass the peanut off as a nut because a nut is presented as healthier than legumes in this study. In a sense, the Peanut Institute hopes to take advantage of people’s ignorance. It’s a strategy that many businesses and politicians seem to be employing in the current era.
The Peanut Institute deception makes little sense: peanuts are quite healthy and the substitution of peanuts for meat in a diet is a good thing, even if eating nuts is better. Peanuts are a domestic crop, quite inexpensive and have more uses than most nuts. There are plenty of good stories to tell about the lowly peanut. Why risk alienating people by trying to tell them a not so little white lie?
Both this specific news release and the underlying strategy of mislabeling peanuts are ill advised, not only because they are unethical, but because they can’t possibly work. That “peanuts are legumes” is one of the “fun facts” that nutrition curricula repeat throughout the grades, like “the tomato is really a fruit” and “carrots are good for your eyes.” In other words, at the first mention of “peanut is a nut,” a large percentage of editors and reporters who see this news release will shout at the paper or computer screen, “Peanuts are legumes, you fool!” Some may use stronger invectives than fool. If the Peanut Institute is lucky, the media will stop reading the release then and there. Otherwise they will see the Peanut Institute’s weasel-like admission of the truth and recognize that the institute is not dumb, but manipulative. If I were still a reporter, I would never forget the Peanut Institute’s attempt to distort.
The fact of the matter is that there was nothing that the Peanut Institute could have done in a news release to spin the coverage of the story towards peanuts. The media rightfully focused on the central finding, which was that red meat is bad for people to eat, and the more you eat of it, the worse it is for you.
The Peanut Institute would have been much better off if it had contacted reporters and editors with a short statement about what the report might mean for sales of peanuts and other legumes and an offer to arrange an interview with a peanut executive about the link between what you eat and disease, either immediately or in the coming weeks. That might have attracted a follow-up business or health feature story and would have been the appropriate way to try to take advantage of a news story to gain coverage of the organization and product.
As punishment, let’s send Burl Ives and the Georgia Militia after the peanut brains who thought up this mistake of a news release.
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