Food documentaries: can you trust them?

food documentaries

A few weeks ago, I signed up to Netflix and binged on several food documentaries. As fascinating as many of them were, I found that some of the presented information was a tad dubious. In one documentary, shocking statements were thrown left and right without referencing any of the quoted studies. This gave the movie a sensationalist undertone and left me wondering if I could trust the information given to me.

Food documentaries remain a great way to learn about the food industry and how it affects your health. However, maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism will prevent you from believing everything you hear. Below I share with you 3 things to keep in mind when watching food documentaries.


Food documentaries: 3 things to keep in mind


1. You are not a giant version of a lab rat

The media tends to go WILD over studies made on rats. For example, a group of 8 eyes rats were feed an exclusive diet of coconut oil and they developed heart disease or cancer after 6 months. And then the media’s interpretation of this is that coconut oil will cause cancer. #facepalm

First of all, human beings are not giant-sized versions of rats. We do not have the same enzymes, nor does our bodies process, metabolize, nor eliminate substances the same way. If the rat is missing an enzyme to eliminate a certain substance, he will of course accumulate it in his body. It will eventually reach a harmful concentration and a disease can develop. However, if another animal possesses that enzyme, the effects are not the same. Therefore, the results of animal studies cannot be applied to humans.

Secondly, unlike lab rats, humans don’t eat an exclusive diet of any food item at 100 times its usual quantity. If we did, I’m willing to bet that we too would develop a disease. So please, do not quote any studies that has been made on animals. It will not convince me that I should stop/start eating a particular food item.


2. Not all studies are made equal

The type of study matters

So apparently drinking milk causes cancer now? Huh. While I don’t have a formal background in research, as a pharmacist, I read lots of studies. And in the scientific world, the only way to say that X causes Y is to undertake what we call a “randomized controlled study”. (click here for more information) This type of study is considered the gold standard in the research world. However, this study design cannot be applied to all research purpose as is may not be practical nor ethical to carry out. In the field of nutrition, many studies are epidemiological studies. (click here for more information) Without a doubt, the latter carry very useful information. However, as they look as past data and are unable to control confounding factors as well as randomized studies (such as age, gender, social economic status, lifestyle habits, etc.), these studies cannot prove that X causes Y.

They can only show that there is an association, or a possible correlation. It may seem like the same thing, but in the scientific world, the implications are very different. With an association, there will always a remain a certain doubt. Because it’s impossible to control every single confounding characteristics with epidemiological studies, perhaps it is not factor X that causes the disease (as the authors concluded), but it was really factor Z.

A common mistake

Coming back to my previous example, a study might suggest that the studied population that drank milk had an increase risk of cancer versus those who didn’t. But perhaps the first group of people were exposed to a now-banned chemical in their childhood that the researchers didn’t factor in. So was it the milk or exposure of the banned chemical that caused the cancer? In this case, you could see why it would be erroneous to say milk causes cancer.


Don’t trust case studies

The media and documentaries will sometime cite case studies, which are basically anecdotal stories looking at one person’s experience. It’s like claiming that smoking is anti-aging for the skin because your 90-year-old grandmother smokes 10 cigarettes a day but doesn’t have a single wrinkle. So you should smoke too, you know? While this is of course an exaggeration, I’m just trying to prove a point that case studies shouldn’t influence your behavior.


Other things to consider

Also, for a study’s results to be valid, the number of study participants must be large enough. While this is different for each study, observing the life of 8 people is certainly not enough to prove that milk causes cancer. In addition, a study has more weight if similar studies point to the same results. This ensures that the result of that one study wasn’t a fluke.

To be honest, study results can be confusing to interpret. While I just spent time explaining to you why a study may be invalid, I also recognize that these small studies may be on to something that deserves further investigation. Just be careful not to drastically change your habits each time a study is published!


3. Are they any conflict of interest?

While many food documentaries point out that it is the milk or meat industries funding studies to prove that meat isn’t all that bad, or writing out the national food policies to keep milk on the food pyramid, keep in mind that the “healthy food and lifestyle” industry is a business too. For example, interviewed doctors may say that detoxes are the cure to 21st century illnesses. However, when you visit their website, they sell 2000$ 3-day detox programs or they may be heavily endorsed by a natural health product company. It makes you reconsider what they said during their interview.


So… who can we trust?

Documentaries are a great way to obtain information and open our eyes to new subjects. However, we need to keep in mind that documentaries are never 100% objective. The author has a point of view and a message to deliver. There will always be a bit of a bias. Therefore, do not take these messages as the exclusive truth.

Also, it can be interesting to explore documentaries that discuss an opposite point of view to your beliefs, or its nuances. For example, if you are a die-hard vegan, watch a documentary on sustainable animal farming. It helps to keep the mind open and can help you form a more objective opinion on the subject.

Finally, if the documentary has a website, see if they display the reference to the quoted studies and articles. If they hide this from the public, I’d be wary of trusting the “facts” quoted in the video.

Stay critical, verify your sources of information, and decide for yourself what you’ll take away from each documentary. On that note, keep learning and let me know which is your favourite food documentary!


Much love and hugs,
Jules xo


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  • Reply
    melissa beatty
    October 3, 2017 at 9:44 am

    Great post Julie – I too just watched What the Health. I absolutely agree that everyone has an agenda but you can’t unsee that needle going into the pigs leg…. It was stuff like that that made my stomach turn and the spraying of pig feces across fields…I take what people say with a grain of salt but those images really got to me. And I guess I am a bit of a conspiracy theorist as I really do think the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry are in cahoots. Bottom line….Eat whole real food as much as possible and be mindful of what you put into your body. Thanks for the discussion.

    • Reply
      October 7, 2017 at 7:42 pm

      Hi Melissa! Indeed, it’s true you can’t unsee certain things, like the conditions farm animal live in or the malpractices on fields (Food Inc and In the Defense of Food kinda changed my life). In a certain way, I prefer food documentaries that go behind the scene than those who show some doctor giving his expert opinion on something or someone reading out results from a random study. Yup, totally agree with your bottom line! Thank you for your comment 🙂

  • Reply
    October 7, 2017 at 6:54 pm

    Hey Julie, Magda @polishvegangirl here 🙂
    Loved your article and I totally know what you mean about the documentaries being “sensational”. I guess what they are trying to do is to wake people who know nothing about nutrition up, so they actually pay attention and start to look at what they eat. Still, I get what you mean about the approach. It’s not the best… However in a country like the US, which has an awful diet in the case of the average American regarding the amount of fruit and veg consumed and has a crazy healthcare system, which is not affordable for most, perhaps some shock therapy is not the worst thing. But anyway – that’s just a side note… I actually wanted to send you a link to one author (who himself admits he has an agenda when promoting certain nutrition – he is a vegan for health and for the animals himself) who spends a lot of time analysing all kinds of research AND their sources/sponsors etc. and he has a lot of data about milk being found to be unhealthy and correlated with higher cancer risk on his website, so if you are interested you can check him out… Here’s just one of his short video summaries about milk and prostate cancer: there’s more there if you look… I actually have just one problem with this author. He is very pro soy everything… and as much as he always pays attention to the dairy studies funding, sources, types of research, etc., I don’t see that much details about the sources of the soy studies he quotes (afterall soy is a huge industry just like milk with a lot of people having high stakes in protecting the interests of soy and propagating it is as super healthy)… So his propagating of soy aside, I find he really does have a lot of interesting studies that he quotes regarding milk, dairy and meat, which as someone with your background, you might enjoy digging deeper into 😀
    Anyway. Just wanted to share the apparently-milk-really-is-unhealthy bit with you. Although of course I get that you were just using that as an example from the movie of something they made super sensational. 🙂

    • Reply
      October 9, 2017 at 9:36 am

      Hi Magda!! How are you? 😀 Wow, thanks for sharing your thoughts with me!

      Indeed, a little shock therapy never hurt anyone, and can be beneficial to many. Food Inc and In the Defense of Food had that effect on me, and I’m happy it did. My concern is that the media knows many of the people consuming these “sensational” news aren’t apt (or simply have no inclination) for checking if the information is true or taken out of context. The media knows that these people will simply buy into their message without questioning it. So there’s pros and cons really to this approach.

      Oh, I love Dr. Greger too! I read his book (gosh, it’s a brick) and has helped lean into a plant-based diet. I didn’t necessarily mean agenda in a bad way. I mean, my blog has an agenda of converting people to eat more plants and adopting a mindful lifestyle! I talked about agendas with the intention to make people understand that they are several sides to a story, and documentaries usually only show one side. Super cool if it’s a side the listener partakes in! However, to create a culture of acceptance and openness, I think it’s healthy to understand the alternatives routes even if it’s not one you agree with.

      It’s interesting that you mention soy (and the soy industry! haven’t thought about that). It’s a rather controversial subject and the studies point in different direction. This is a case where the data isn’t clear, but that I still prefer to err on the side of precaution (because it makes me break out! lol). I will admit I haven’t extensively search the literature on the subject of milk, but you picked my curiosity.

      Thanks for the discussion, Magda 😀

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