Invisible Words

An editor for a national grocery magazine once assigned a story to me about the health benefits of spices. Write a story about how good spices are for us, especially cinnamon and turmeric, he said. Part of the magazine’s function is to give grocers information to better market what they sell. I said sure, why not. I liked the idea of giving these dusty supermarket staples their day in the aisle.

I was told my main source would be a spokesperson at McCormick’s spices, the large US spice company with a very large global reach. Really. Not exactly investigative research. Then I learned McCormick has a big lab where they study the health benefits of spices. Ooph.

I wrote the story

But had a horrible time with it – and not just because of the source and their biased research – but because of their insubstantial findings, which they were passing off as substantial. I said so to my editor. No problem he said, just report what McCormick says.

So I did. I didn’t need the magazine’s legal department looking over my shoulder; I was happy to use the language of the studies: may, possibly, could actually, evidence that. Small, even invisible words and phrases to the reader, yet very important. Funny thing is, the reader reads right over them, especially if they’re partnered with antioxidant, super food, anti-inflammatory, or in this particular case, breast cancer. And editors everywhere know it. The end message in my story read that spices are good for us.

Well, if they’re not bad for us, what difference does it make?

I didn’t think the studies I read amounted to much and when I pressed my interview subjects (which also included a dietician, also suggested by my editor), I learned there wasn’t any scientific evidence that spices have health benefits. None at all. What I learned was that the overwhelming anecdotal evidence – Indian people lived longer and ate a lot of turmeric and cinnamon. This led McCormick to start scientific trials. They had no proof as yet but damn it if they weren’t going to get it. That’s a good story but not for the publication I was writing for.

Findings of studies have become media stories in themselves. The Atlantic says scientists themselves are to blame, not the media (they would). But we’re thinking adults and good readers. We know studies are part of a larger scientific process, that they’re not always conclusive, and we also know there’s probably another study that refutes the one we’ve just read. Right?

Maybe it doesn’t make any difference if the study is true or false – if it’s harmless. Maybe, in our quest for health, we just move on to the next silver bullet (because we want good health without doing much). But if it were harmful, or to use the old fashioned term ‘quackery’, what then? Those invisible words like may, possibly, could actually, evidence that, are handy to the reader.  

How much?

I asked the dietician how much cinnamon we actually had to eat before our bodies reaped its antioxidant benefits. She actually didn’t know, but a lot. Her practical advice was to sprinkle liberal amounts, say one tablespoon a day, on all our food everyday. In another breath she suggested we do the same with turmeric and oregano. 

Yuck. Who wants all their food – eggs, pork chops, salad, toast – to taste exactly the same? And taste awful, even if it might be healthy. Read all the words before you ruin a good omelette in the name of maybe.