Hype, scare mongering, obfuscation and just plain misinformation – the scientific community are reasonably clear about what they think of Tabloid science reporting much of the time.  So I wasn’t too surprised to see the headline “‘Grey goo’ food laced with nanoparticles could swamp Britain” in today’s Daily Mail, following the release of a new report on nanotechnologies and food from the UK House of Lords.  Here we go again I thought – cheap misrepresentation to pull the punters in and never mind the fallout.  But on closer reading, perhaps this piece isn’t as crass and misleading as I initially thought…

Partly as a bit of fun, I thought I would deconstruct the piece, to try and work out whether there is some sense here behind the apparent madness.  But I also have a bit of a soft spot for its author, Fiona Macrae.  Fiona was largely responsible for educating me in the ways of Tabloid reporting a few years ago.  It was the launch of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory, and I was talking with a group of reporters at the UK Science Media Center.  I remember Fiona clearly – she was smart, engaged, asked intelligent questions.  I was effusive in my answers.  And shocked when I saw her story the next day.

Rather than telling my story, she told hers.  Under the banner “‘Hidden danger’ in anti-ageing cream” she appeared to take my carefully considered words and turn them on their head.  Of course, it didn’t help that, in the course of our amiable interview, I had told her “We are using humans as guinea pigs with a lot of this.”  The lesson: she was a skilled reporter, and I was naive!

Having been on the sharp end of her pen, I was interested to read today’s story with a slightly more dispassionate eye.  Here’s what I thought, section by section:

The headline: ‘Grey goo’ food laced with nanoparticles could swamp Britain

What an emotive headline – a new danger, infiltrating our food, and threatening to overcome us!  From a purely literary perspective, the imagery is wonderful – “‘grey goo food'” brings back recollections of old-style British cuisine, while “laced” and “swamp” are loaded with menace.  But is it inaccurate?  Placing grey goo in inverted commas tells us that this is shorthand for something, and not to be taken too literally.  According to the report the piece is based on, food could hit the shelves that contains nanoparticles (and is probably already there) – “laced” is descriptive, but not inaccurate.  Saying Britain could be swamped with these foods is a bit of an exaggeration – but it is possible that in the future significant numbers of food products could use nanomaterials in some way.  So while the headline is attention-grabbing, it avoids being plain wrong.

Britain is on the brink of a massive expansion in foods containing controversial ‘grey goo’ nanoparticles, according to the former head of the Food Standards Agency.

Low-calorie chocolate and beer that doesn’t go flat could be on sale within just five years, Lord Krebs said last night.

Is Britain on the brink of a massive expansion of foods containing nanomaterials – aka “‘grey goo’ nanoparticles”?  Not unless industry and government do something to ensure the safe and successful development of the technology, according to the House of Lords report.  But the statement isn’t too far from the truth.  And the chocolate and beer examples are accurate.

However, he and other peers believe there will be no requirement for the hi-tech products to be labelled as containing nanoparticles – microscopic compounds that can worm their way into the brain, liver and kidneys with unknown consequences.

Here we see the real skill of the Tabloid writer – technically correct writing with worrying embedded subliminal messages.  Sure the Lords writing the report didn’t believe labeling is the way to go – although they did come up with another solution to ensure people had access to relevant information.  And some nanoparticles can get to the brain and kidneys, with unknown consequences.  But by saying they ‘worm their way in’ Macrae conjures up images of slimy parasites and worse – would you want anything “worming” its way into your body?

But critics said the public have the right to know what they are putting into their bodies, and point out that new legislation will mean that cosmetics that contain nanoparticles will have to be clearly labelled.

Correct.  And the full report addressed this.

Once derided by Prince Charles as ‘grey goo’, nanoparticles are tiny particles – 300 million would fit in a pinhead – with powerful properties that make them of interest to food companies.

Although they are small, they have a large surface area at which key chemical reactions can take place. This means that relatively low numbers of sugar nanoparticles can have the same effect as a large amount of normal sugar, creating tasty chocolate or cakes with a fraction of the calories.

The same principle could be applied to fat, allowing the creation of low-fat icecreams and mayonnaise that taste like the real thing.

Nanotechnology-inspired packaging promises to improve food shelf-life, and in the U.S. plastic beer bottles have been lined with ‘nanoclay’ to stop the brew from going flat.

This is all good and useful information.  Having grabbed the Tabloid reader’s attention, Macrae is now feeding them some useful information.

Lord Krebs chaired an inquiry by the House of Lords science and technology committee into the safety of nanotechnology in food, which found that although there is no evidence that the tiny particles are harmful, there are ‘large gaps’ on our knowledge.

The committee called for the Food Standards-Agency to compile a database of nanoproducts that can be accessed by the public. The FSA is not in favour of nanoparticles being declared on food labels, saying they are cluttered enough already.

This is accurate reporting – still on a roll here.

The inquiry also criticised the food industry for being unnecessarily ‘ secretive’ about the products it has in the pipeline. It said this seemed mainly to be because it was concerned about the public’s reaction.

Julian Hunt of the Food and Drink Federation said: ‘Given that nanotechnology is in its infancy in the food and drink sector, and that bringing innovations to market is a long and complex process, we are surprised that the report seems to criticize the food industry for an apparent reluctance to communicate extensively on this subject.

‘There are many questions and unknowns about the potential future uses of nanotechnologies in our sector, and there is much work still to be done by scientists, governments and regulators, as well as the food and drink industry.’

And we finish with the report’s critique of the food industry – which was the main thrust of the associated press release – and a response from an industry representative.

And at the end of the piece, I have to say that it is largely accurate and informative – emotive maybe, but not seriously misleading.  I would actually go further and say that, once the in-your-face headline and opening sentences have pulled readers in, they might actually learn something!

Of course, the fear is that readers will miss the nuances and not read past the headline and, as a result, get completely the wrong end of the stick.  I wonder how likely this is in this case though. Do people really believe in “grey goo” or is the joke on over-sensitive scientists here?

There are obviously major issues surrounding science reporting in the Tabloids, and I don’t for one minute want to give the impression that I am supporting dangerously misleading and disingenuous reporting.  But in this instance, there’s little of substance to complain about once you get beyond the occasionally jarring language.  And it might actually lead to some readers having a better grasp of what nanotech has to do with food… possibly!

Go Fiona!

Andrew Maynard