Here’s a thought about health warnings related to foods and food packaging.
A few months ago my grandmother told me she had stopped drinking bottled water. Why? Because she had heard on the news that there are chemicals in plastic water bottles that can give you cancer. That, of course, is crazy. No, I’m not saying that it’s crazy to think that there might be a link between phthalates and various illnesses. What’s crazy is for someone who is 92 to worry about it. And in point of fact, we (her family) had strongly recommended to my grandmother that she buy and drink bottled water, because we know (based on her own reports) that when tap water was the only water available, she just wasn’t consuming enough fluids. She only drinks enough water when it is a) very cold and b) very convenient. So, for my grandmother, refrigerated bottled water was an excellent solution. Sure, there may have been other solutions, but this one worked and the concerns over the long-term health effects of phthalates just don’t matter much, in comparison, to someone who is 92. Like I said, her decision to stop buying bottled water was crazy.
But my grandmother is not, in fact, crazy. She had merely been scared unnecessarily by a news story. Now, I didn’t see the news item she saw, so I have no idea whether the reporting was good or bad. So the point is a much more general one, namely that with few exceptions (“Don’t eat beef that smells off!“), health advice needs to be tailored to the individual in order to be really useful. I can understand entirely why many parents don’t want their kids exposed to phthalates. I don’t usually buy bottled water, myself. But I believe my grandmother ought to.
The challenge, of course, is that different people may have very different needs, but health experts get only a tiny slice of the public’s attention, and need to use that slice to get their message out as quickly and efficiently. The same goes for reporters. They typically aren’t permitted the airtime (or column inches) to give a long list of exceptions. And besides, neither health experts nor reporters can anticipate the many and varied needs of everyone watching or listening. There’s no way the experts and reporters my grandmother was relying on could be expected to anticipate her special needs, or to do a personalized cost-benefit analysis for her. But it’s worth remembering, for all of us involved in debates (or just personal decisions) about food nutrition and safety: for every generalization about what’s good or useful or healthy, there must also be a list — even if usually unstated — of ifs, ands, or buts.