4 Awful Strategies for Talking to People About Food Science

By: Danielle Robertson 

You’re a food scientist, and proud of it! You know that some people have misconceptions about the food industry, and you’re not afraid to pipe up and set the record straight. Then you see the eye-rolls, notice you’ve been un-followed or un-friended or catch a furtive “Don’t do it” glance from your roommate when someone at your lunch table uses the expression “toxic chemical”.

Gif courtesy of Giphy.com

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. There are definitely some great achievements in the food industry to talk about, but there are also some not-so-great ways to talking about food science. Here are some strategies to avoid, and more effective strategies to use instead:

AWFUL STRATEGY ONE – Leading with “I’m a food scientist.”

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being proud of your food science background, but any valid points you make in defense of food science can be blunted when you start your argument by saying you’re part of that industry.

 WHAT TO DO INSTEAD:  Emphasize not WHO you are, but WHAT you’re defending.

Even the most well-respected, well-educated doctors make mistakes; and the best baseball hitters have a batting average around 0.3, meaning they still miss the ball at least 6 out of 10 times. Who you are doesn’t make you right or credible when you explain food science. True, having a background in food science makes you more equipped to discern credible food facts from exaggerated claims, but your points and arguments should focus on data, not just your role.

 AWFUL STRATEGY TWO – Referring to studies with the details only scientists care about.

The general public knows the terms “double-blind, placebo-controlled”, but they may not grasp the full implications of these conditions, or the other small details that make a study reliable. Trying to include too many study method details can be detrimental if it’s data-overload for your listener, and it may distract from the actual results of the study.

 WHAT TO DO INSTEAD:  Emphasize the results of the study, and just mention it’s a study you have faith in.

If your listener wants more information about WHY you trust one study over another, they’ll ask, but don’t assume that they care. Let that be your second or third point, but your first point should be the results of the study. After all, what makes a study “credible” can really be a whole separate conversation, and even in the science world, we don’t all agree entirely on what makes a study credible. (“They used HOW MANY volunteers? Oh sure, but that was only in rat models. Who cares if it cures cancer in a test-tube?”)

 AWFUL STRATEGY THREE – Waiving counter-arguments or claims based on who said them.
When I hear someone start a conversation with, “Well the Food Babe said…” I already know I disagree with what comes next. But this is not active listening, and active listening must happen in any effective conversation. If someone is not automatically right because they’re a food scientist (see Awful Strategy #1), then no one should be automatically wrong, either. A broken clock is right twice a day, and almost every food/diet myth has at least a small grain of truth.


WHAT TO DO INSTEAD:  Emphasize the conflicting information and try not to bring up past mistakes.

One of the tips most newlyweds receive is not to bring up the past during an argument. The same goes for discrediting the source of poor information. It can be extremely tempting to waive an exaggerated stat or headline by pointing out all the other times this particular source has got it wrong (Raspberry ketones, anyone?). This strategy can backfire in two ways: first of all, there was a time when smart food scientist thought trans fats were a good solution for oxidation; second of all, if a certain source of information is always considered wrong automatically, there’s no incentive for them to change. If the little boy who cried “wolfberry miracle fruit” is always mocked by the scientific community, what hope is there for this little boy to have a real conversation with someone in that community? Once again, the emphasis has to be on the data, not the person.

AWFUL STRATEGY FOUR – Assuming anyone other than you and Hermione like to read.

When I want to learn more about a certain topic, my first instinct is to find a book or credible article on the topic. I love to read, and thus anytime I need to support or defend food science, my natural reaction is to suggest a book.

You don’t like artificial sweeteners? Oh my goodness, you should read An Apple a Day by Dr. Joe Schwarcz! … I didn’t know what to think about BPA either, until I read Dangerous or Safe by Cara Natterson. Oh! It’s SUCH a good book; I’ll lend it to you.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Share the gems from your favorite books; don’t assign homework.

You can never win an argument by giving out reading assignments. As an author, I would love it if every time someone used the expression “energy drinks are toxic”, my book flew through the air like Thor’s hammer to find them, and followed them around until they read it. However, a more realistic expectation is for those who have read my book to use the information within to explain that not all energy drinks are as extreme as one might think.

My resolution for this year is to memorize my favorite stats from my favorite books. It’s quite possible mini-note cards will find a home in my purse, but being able to share credible stats on the spot is much more powerful than sharing the name of a book my audience will never read.


What strategies have backfired on you, and What are your favorite strategies for defending food science?

Science Meets Food

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