If you’ve been reading political news headlines from websites as diverse as Fox News, MSNBC and the Huffington Post, you are probably under the impression that the U.S. Congress has recently reaffirmed that pizza is indeed a vegetable. Skimming those headlines, it’s easy to scoff at such a ridiculous notion, and easier still to believe that Congress could be that stupid.
There’s one problem, though. They never actually said that pizza is a vegetable. Pizza is not even mentioned, except by news sources and commentators after the fact.
The truth, as usual, is a little more complex and illustrates the difficulty of matching policy to nutrition science.
The goal of the House of Representatives was to give public school children a more nutritious breakfast and lunch. This is a laudable goal, together with the fact that they used information and research from both the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM).
First, a quick overview of what the proposed menu regulations actually say. The key points are: 1) reduce the number of starchy vegetables like potatoes in favor of more varied fruits and vegetables; 2) reduce the salt in food by 25 percent in breakfasts and 54 percent in lunches and 3) the servings of vegetables credited to tomato paste will be determined on a per-volume basis.
This third point is what became distorted as news sources reported that this would make pizza a vegetable. This is somewhat true but misleading, as a slice of pizza could contain enough tomato paste to have one serving of vegetable but also contains too much salt and fat to be allowed on the proposed menu.
However, like a game of Telephone, the headlines went from, “Pizza could be considered to have a vegetable serving,” to “Congress says pizza is a vegetable!”
I know that writing accurate but eye-catching headlines can be hard. It’s tempting to put something spectacular and weird in big, bold font above the story. It’s especially tempting to do so if it reaffirms something that everyone already believes, so we can all feel smart.
It’s called confirmation bias, a psychological phenomenon that means we are more likely to believe something if we think it confirms something we already believe, e.g. that Congress and politicians are stupid and/or overly swayed by corporate lobbyists.
It’s a strong feeling, one that can be hard to resist, even for people who are supposed to remain objective. I almost fell for it too; the original subject of this column was going to be explaining nutritionally what exactly is in pizza, and therefore why the Congress menu proposal was misguided.
The obvious problem with confirmation bias is that people will believe that something is true when it isn’t, and strengthen convictions that should be, if not challenged, at least examined critically. This example is rather mundane but does illustrate what can go wrong when both the general public and journalists fall for confirmation bias.
There is another problem with confirmation bias, at least in this case. The actual proposal isn’t that great, either. First of all, there’s a reason salt is in a lot of foods — it can add flavor to an otherwise flavorless dish. When you have a good chef in the kitchen, salt can be reduced because with a decent recipe, a chef can make a delicious meal without salt. Public school cooks, while I’m sure they do their best with the very limited funds that they have, don’t always have this skill.
Having attended various public schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, I can say that the food would either be fairly good but unhealthy, or supposedly healthy but almost inedible. Healthy alternatives are expensive, an expense that public schools can’t always afford. Trying to make the school food nutritionally perfect could be at the expense of children actually eating the food, unless more money is allocated to afford healthy food that tastes OK.
As for the tomato paste, the new regulations would require that the serving of paste would go from a quarter of a cup to three quarters of a cup. The Congress, however, was forgetting that tomato paste is concentrated; a quarter of a cup is equivalent to about three tomatoes, making three quarters of a cup of tomato paste equal to about nine tomatoes. That’s a bit excessive to be going on a serving of spaghetti.
AMY STEWART can be reached at email@example.com.