If there's a study that shows pasta in a good light, it's hard to ignore. Everybody loves pasta, right? I do. Chances are you do, too. Barilla, maker of pasta, definitely does.
The headlines: Eating Pasta Can Help You Lose Weight, Analysis Finds (USA Today), Eating Pasta Linked to Weight Loss in New Study (Newsweek)
The story: "I think the context gets lost somewhat," says John Sievenpiper, one of the authors of the new study, when I asked what he thought of headlines like the ones above. That study actually found that small servings of pasta in the context of a low glycemic index diet weren't associated with weight gain. "We think we can generalize to other healthy dietary patterns, but it's not 'you can consume as much pasta as you like in any dietary pattern and expect to see this benefit,'" he says.
The study was not a new experiment, but an analysis of previously published studies. The authors couldn't find studies that tested the weight loss effects of pasta alone, but there were studies of low-glycemic-index diets that included pasta.
(Glycemic index measures how much of a spike in blood sugar results from eating a given carbohydrate-rich food. Cornflakes have a GI of 81, instant mashed potatoes 87. Pasta is less than you might expect: 49, according to this list.)
Pasta, consumed in tiny portions throughout the week (half a cup, three times), does not singlehandedly wreck a low GI diet. That's what the new analysis found, and that news should not surprise anybody. I asked Sievenpiper if this type of study, on any food item, has ever concluded that there is a food that negates the effects of an otherwise healthy diet. He couldn't think of any examples.
Why are there headlines about a study that's not really news?
To be fair, any time a study is published in a scientific journal, a news event has arguably happened. This one was part of a Canadian effort to analyse the role of particular foods in healthy diets, and Sievenpiper said his team had done similar studies on nuts and on pulses (beans and lentils). Pasta in particular gets a bad rap, so it was worth studying to see whether it had any specific effect on weight loss. Fine.
But thousands of studies happen every year without any of us hearing about them. (Remember when we all got excited about this analysis of beans? Yeah, me neither.) There are a few more steps between study and media frenzy, and one of the biggest is a press release.
In this case, the press release that most reporters saw was this one published by St. Michael's Hospital. Several of the study's authors work for this hospital. It's a standard part of the news cycle for institutions (like hospitals and universities) to notify the press when their researchers publish a study that might be newsworthy. The press release is a pre-written story that some outlets may run in its entirety and that others may use as a jumping-off point to do their own reporting.
But that's not all. Pasta maker Barilla was also "supporting communications" for this study, according to a representative from PR agency Edelman. She emailed me a few days before the study came out to ask if I'd like to talk to a dietitian about low GI diets and pasta. Barilla's name wasn't anywhere in that initial email, a pattern I've been noticing lately when companies want to publicize a study that benefits their brand.
Barilla did not fund the new study, although it did provide support — mainly free pasta — to some of the trials that the analysis was based on. Sievenpiper told me that researchers and company people often stay in touch, and they had mentioned to the folks at Barilla that they had a new pasta study coming out.
The takeaway: Tiny portions of pasta can fit into an otherwise healthy diet, but that's not news.