From Superfood to Pink Slime: The Power of the Media in the Rise and Fall of Food Popularity

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE SKEPTIC'S GUIDE TO HEALTH, MEDICINE, AND THE MEDIA

By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University

In 2014, a Daily Mail story claimed that ,according to nutritionists, kale and quinoa harm the thyroid and the stomach. However, no evidence was provided to support these claims, which was not surprising because it was not the first time such claims had been made about superfoods. The media can turn people against products with simple changes in words.

Various colorful superfoods as acai powder, turmeric, matcha green tea, spirulina, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, blueberry, dried goji berries, cape gooseberries, raw cocoa, hemp seeds on dark background
Media attention can exaggerate both good and bad features of products. (Image: Alexander Raths/Shutterstock)

The Destructive Power of Words Used in the Media

The word ‘superfood’ is a perfect example of how the media can make extravagant claims about particular foods merely by using powerful words, which ironically have no specific meaning. The term ‘super’ added to other words like food, fruits, or grains, bears no definite meaning, but it manipulates the way consumers view the products and, eventually, leads to more sales.

But the influence of media in giving a certain feel or meaning to food is not limited to positive ones. Media can also destroy the market for a specific product. The best example is an everyday food staple in many households and restaurants, known as ‘lean finely textured beef’. But things changed when the media decided to refer to it as ‘pink slime’.

raw minced meat
Before being dubbed ‘pink slime’, textured beef had a successful market. (Image: Gayvoronskaya_Yana/Shutterstock)

In 2012, an online magazine called Slate published an article titled “The Sliming: How Processed Beef Trimmings Got Rebranded, Again and Again and Again.” The story points out that the product, which is sold under the name ‘lean finely textured beef’, is a mash of beef trimmings whose fat is removed by spinning the chopped-off pieces in a centrifuge. However, the proponents of natural food call this protein-rich product ‘pink slime’.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

From Pink Meat to Pink Slime: From Success to Disaster

In March 2012, several ABC News reports were published, covering lax rules from the US Department of Agriculture. According to the reports, the rules did not prevent meatpackers from selling the supposedly unsanitary and noxious ‘pink slime’.  After that 2012 news report, the new nickname was widely used instead of the original product name.

The product had been hugely successful, having sold several billion pounds since 1993. According to ABC reports, 70% of the ground beef sold in American supermarkets contained this product. But the sales dropped considerably after it was redubbed as ‘pink slime’, leading to the bankruptcy of AFA Foods after they had to close down three of their four factories.

Interestingly, NBC News, which was the first to start the media coverage, did not state the product was not suitable to eat. Also, the Slate story quoted an ABC representative who claimed they had never said ‘pink slime’ was unsafe. The article even pointed out to consumer watchdog groups saying this kind of processed beef is not more unsanitary than other forms of minced meat. It even claimed the product might be better than others.

Learn more about we share our world with toxins.

Pink Slime Sales Plummet

The market for a product that had been widely used for 20 years collapsed in a few weeks after it was renamed to pink slime. 250,000 people signed a petition to remove ‘pink slime’ from school cafeterias. Supermarkets and restaurants raced to remove the product from burgers and other foods.

Grouded Beef in a bowl isolated on white backgound
The market for ‘pink slime’ collapsed and petitions were signed to remove it from school cafeterias (Image: rodrigobark/Shutterstock)

What was the reason behind the coverage of pink slime at this scale if it wasn’t that harmful after all? According to the Slate article, one of the beef manufacturers filed a lawsuit against ABC. According to the lawsuit, the ratings of ABC had dropped below those of CBS for 25 to-54-year-olds before they started covering the product. The coverage reversed the positions by a broader margin.

The lawsuit, which began in 2017, led the media to introspect, reflecting on their responsibility to report truthfully.

A few months later, The New York Times ran a story that covered the story from another perspective. The story titled “Go Ahead. Eat Pink Slime,” asked: “Whatever you call it, is pink slime a wholesome food?”

Although ‘pink slime’ is an unappetizing name, the product is entirely harmless to eat. Besides, low-income American families rely on it as an affordable source of protein and lean meat. So, these families will get hurt if the product is stigmatized.

Learn more about the media and weight loss.

Common Questions about The Power of the Media in the Rise and Fall of Food Popularity

Q: Is ‘pink slime’ bad for you?

Despite the unappetizing name, ‘pink slime‘ is not bad for you and is harmless. On the contrary, it is a good and affordable source of protein and lean meat that can benefit many low-income families.

Q: What is pink slime?

Previously known as ‘lean finely textured meat’, pink slime is a protein-rich product. It is ground beef from which fat is removed and turned into a fine texture. It is used in many beef products like hamburgers.

Q: Can pink slime make you sick?

There is no evidence that pink slime can make you feel sick. Consumer watchdog groups say that the product is no more unsanitary than other forms of ground beef. It could even be a better choice.

Q: What are superfoods?

Superfoods are foods that are claimed to have magical powers in curing illnesses. The word ‘super’, added to other words like food, fruits, or grains, bear no clear meaning, but it is supposed to manipulate the way consumers view the products and, eventually, lead to more sales.

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