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Big pasta’s association study short on facts

Children and adolescents who eat pasta have better overall diet quality new research shows

Our Review Summary

association is not the same as causationThis news release from the National Pasta Association claims a new study shows that American children and adolescents who eat pasta consume a higher quality diet than children who don’t eat pasta. But this association is based on survey data measured against recommended dietary guidelines — which makes for a less-than-conclusive result.

We can’t know from this type of study whether eating pasta led to healthier children. While nutrient intake was reported on questionnaires, health status wasn’t measured or reported, according to the brief study abstract. The release itself states that “No significant associations were seen with body weight, waist circumference and body mass index.”

Further, the release doesn’t offer readers any numbers with which to assess the claims.

 

Why This Matters

Good nutrition advice is needed in the United States. “The percentage of children with obesity in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s,” according to the CDC. “Today, about one in five school-aged children (ages 6–19) has obesity,” the agency says. But this release does not help the reader understand whether there is a meaningful message in an association study between pasta eating patterns and health outcomes. A better diet may have less to do with pasta eating than with household income or cultural attitudes about home-cooked meals. These variables might have influenced dietary patterns more substantially than the noodles.

Criteria

Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

The release does not address the cost of including pasta in meal preparation but it’s generally known to anyone who buys food that a box of dry noodles can be purchased for less than $1.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The release does not give us any numbers that allow us to see the proof of the association described. Here is one statement from the release.

The study “demonstrated that young pasta-eaters have greater intakes of important vitamins and minerals and lower intakes of saturated fat and total fat in the diet compared to their peers who do not consume pasta.”

Readers need to see definitions of greater, lower and important in that paragraph. Without numbers and definitions, there is no context for the reader.

For more discussion on pasta association research, see this blog post, “Eat Pasta, Lose Weight,” published here in 2016.

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The release does not mention any harms from increased pasta consumption. The problem is not with pasta’s nutrients but with potentially filling up on high-calorie pasta and excluding other healthy foods (not named in the release) from your diet.

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

We give the news release some credit for using appropriate language such as when it used the words “associated with” when describing the research. However, we wish there had been a specific discussion of the fact that this kind of study can’t demonstrate cause and effect.

The study looked at USDA dietary recommendations, then compared them with data obtained from annual national surveys of what American adults and children ate between 2001-2012.

The release doesn’t mention any limitations from association studies nor that data obtained from food frequency questionnaires (FFQ) used in the national annual survey are based on recall which can introduce error. We wish it had cautioned about the preliminary nature of the findings and the fact that the findings presented at conference haven’t been published and likely undergone limited peer review.

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There was no disease mongering. While the release named some nutrients that the USDA deems are in “shortfall” in American diets, we would have liked the release to provide more context about what nutrient mix is considered ideal for children, which is a complicated picture.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

The release clearly states that an industry financed association paid for the research. Readers should be able to take the hint (without being told explicitly) that the association has a financial interest in selling more pasta.

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The release does not discuss alternative diets that might provide the shortfall nutrients identified by the USDA.

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

We’ll rate this Not Applicable since it is generally known that pasta is inexpensive and widely available.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The release states that “new research shows that pasta consumption in children and adolescents is associated with a better diet quality than that of children who do not eat pasta.”  Due to the limitations of the research and the lack of outcomes data we don’t believe the release demonstrates any new or novel conclusions that could impact children’s health. In fact, readers should probably question whether the study was commissioned to increase knowledge in this area or to help increase pasta sales.

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?

Satisfactory

The release does not rely on sensational language. However, we think the headline language goes overboard based on the scant evidence provided in the release.

“Children and adolescents who eat pasta have better overall diet quality new research shows” seems an exaggeration based on what is offered in the release. The release merely says that a few vitamins and nutrients were at higher levels in the pasta-eating children. It does not guarantee their diets are of overall better quality.

Total Score: 3 of 8 Satisfactory

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