Marketing & Media

Guest Post: Daily Mail Distorts Outcome Of Major Study Showing Benefits of Plant Protein

Robbie Lockie, co-founder of Plant-Based News, recently established the Freedom Food Alliance in order to counteract widespread disinformation in the media regarding the food system.

In this piece, Robbie describes one of the myriad examples of information being distorted to fit the purposes of the mainstream narrative.


A recent article published in the Daily Mail online was based on the “quoting out of context” fallacy and is particularly misleading because it quotes a legitimate, scientific study, but distorts its results to serve the author’s points. In her article, Health Reporter Emily Joshu issues a warning to vegans: animal proteins are crucial for healthy aging and a vegan diet is harmful for overall health.

As evidence for these claims, Joshu references a study led by Tufts University, investigating various protein sources and their relationship to healthy ageing in over 48,000 women, and directly quotes from the University’s Press Release. However, this is what that press release is entitled: “Diets rich in plant protein may help women stay healthy as they age.” Besides, the visuals used in the Daily Mail article do not reflect in any way the study’s findings, but were used in past articles which were also aimed at undermining the benefits of a plant-based diet.

By consistently using negative language that associates plant-based foods or diets with the idea of danger, the article builds on fear-mongering techniques to manipulate and distort the truths to which it claims to relate. The title is incredibly revealing: “Warning vegans!”, while the rest of the article goes on to talk about the “risks” that “switching to [a vegan] diet carries.” But these “risks” are not supported by the scientific study that this Daily Mail article is reporting on.

Mail online screenshot
Courtesy of The Freedom Food Alliance

Why this is deeply problematic

What the study shows: there is growing evidence pointing to the health benefits of consuming more plant-based protein.

What the article does: scare people into not buying or consuming more plant-based foods.

Let’s fact-check the misconceptions propagated in Emily Joshu’s misleading article and look in more detail at the study’s actual conclusions:

  1. Animal Proteins are Crucial for Healthy Ageing: Emily claims that the study finds animal proteins are crucial for healthy aging. The study does not support this claim. In fact, the study highlights a positive association between protein intake and healthy ageing, with plant protein specifically showing higher odds of healthy ageing. The study found that increasing total protein intake by 3% of an individual’s total calories was associated with a 5% higher odds of healthy ageing. Specifically, animal protein was associated with a 7% higher odds, and dairy protein specifically was associated with a 14% higher odds. Plant protein was the most beneficial, increasing odds of healthy ageing by 38%. In her Daily Mail article, Emily continues to focus on the benefits of adding small amounts of meat and dairy for healthy ageing, misrepresenting the study’s findings. What the researchers found, by conducting a substitution analysis, was replacing 3% of calories from total animal protein or dairy protein with plant protein was associated with a 38% and 26% higher odds of healthy ageing, respectively.
  2. Vegan Diets Can Be Harmful for Overall Health: The article suggests that strictly vegan diets could be harmful to overall health. However, many national and international organisations support a plant-based diet for healthy living, including the World Health Organisation, the American Dietetic Association, and the British Dietetic Association. The British Dietetic Association states on its website that “Plant-based diets can support healthy living at every age and life stage. But as with any diet, you should plan your plant-based eating to meet your nutritional needs.”
Woman with healthy food shopping spinach Tastewise
©Tastewise.io

Furthermore, the study she has referenced found that increased plant protein intake was associated with a higher odds of having good mental status and being free from physical function limitations. While animal protein intake was associated with being free from physical limitations, it was also associated with lower odds of being free from 11 major chronic diseases, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, Parkinson’s disease, and more.

  1. Nutrients from Animal Proteins: Emily cites studies that claim animal protein is needed in the diet to provide B12, protein, fats and carbs, iron, calcium, and zinc. However, animal protein is not the exclusive source of these nutrients, as they can be obtained on a vegan diet that emphasises a variety of plant foods, and B12 is readily available as a supplement or in fortified foods. Dr Shireen Kassam, Founder of Plant-Based Health Professionals UK, says “Although there are additional nutrients found in animal sources of protein, these same nutrients are readily available from plant-based sources without the harmful nutrients found in animal foods such as saturated fat and haem iron. Although bone health does require special attention when following an exclusively plant-based diet, once again, this can be addressed by focussing on diet quality and meeting nutrients requirements alongside weight bearing and strength exercises.”
  2. Research Warns Against Fully Vegan Diets: The author claims that this study aligns with other findings warning against vegan diets. That simply can’t be true, seeing as the study does not include vegans nor does it identify any health concerns associated with a vegan diet.

In response to the Daily Mail article, Dr Shireen Kassam said, “The study findings have been completely misinterpreted since it does not even include vegan participants. The results demonstrate the importance of consuming sufficient protein for healthy ageing, which comes as no surprise. However, the analysis confirms that consumption of plant sources of protein rather than animal and dairy protein, was associated with a higher chance of healthy ageing with benefits for both physical functioning and mental health. This should not come as a surprise as prior data have shown very similar findings. The reasons are likely due to the healthier nutrient packaging of plant sources of protein, which results in better cardiometabolic health and lower levels of inflammation.”

Joshu’s article grossly misrepresents the science it tries to discuss, by placing a great emphasis on the inclusion of small amounts of animal protein for warding off diseases, whilst failing to focus on the main point of the study, the health benefits of plant protein. The study itself emphasises the particularly strong benefits of plant protein, more so than animal protein, for healthy ageing. Its emphasis and framing misrepresent the study’s main conclusions.

So, what’s the effect on society?

The comments section of the article demonstrates the harmful effects that such articles present and points to the need to address such cases of misinformation. By drawing its conclusions from a major study, and quoting doctors and experts on the topic, it gives itself an air of credibility. But it doesn’t educate its readers at all about the study which it claims to summarise. What it does is merely reinforce the familiar and sadly popular narrative that radically opposes people who eat meat and those who don’t. It reinforces the perception of people who choose to adopt a plant-based diet as uninformed about its dangers, all the while reinforcing unhelpful misconceptions about the solely beneficial effects of eating meat.

The comments at the end of the article show a strong animosity towards the people who choose to adopt a plant-based diet. And so this is what the article does: it taps into an unhealthy, polarising divide, rather than drawing from scientific evidence to advance the debate.

Commentary and research provided by
Isabelle Sadler, Dr Elise Hutchinson

Sources
Tufts University’s Press Release: https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/1030804

British Dietetic Association: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/vegetarian-vegan-plant-based-diet.html

The Freedom Food Alliance is a watchdog and advocacy organization working to cut through the noise in the global food industry. We focus on equipping consumers with the most accurate, science-backed information. Our multi-pronged approach includes disinformation reports, a fact-checking website, and international campaigns aimed at shedding light on industry malpractices. Join us in our quest for transparency, accountability, and a more informed consumer base.

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