Graduate students in food and nutrition sciences analyze food documentaries at a public presentation in Baker Center Theater on Oct. 29. From left are: Danielle Bray; Cara Acksel; Teena Stambaugh; Xingbo Liu.
Photographer: Ryan Murphy
Graduate students in food and nutrition sciences, seated at table, analyze claims in the food documentary "Food Matters" at a public presentation in Baker Center Theater on Oct. 29.
Photographer: Ryan Murphy
Nov 7, 2012
By Gina Mussio
It’s no secret that documentaries can serve as a powerful source of information, news or even propaganda. For those passionate about the genre, the information presented can change minds, instill new ideas and even prompt some to change their lifestyle.
So the facts and scientific data that are presented in a documentary are important and should be scrutinized carefully. That’s the lesson that a group of graduate students in food and nutrition sciences took away from a recent class project in which they gave public presentations analyzing the credibility of scientific data offered in three popular food-focused films: “Food Matters,” “Forks Over Knives” and “The Future of Food” in Baker Center Theater.
“Films, even documentaries, are ultimately telling a story, and filmmakers don't have the same goals or obligations that scientists do,” said Lara Householder, a second-year graduate student involved in the presentations. “I don't think it's at all surprising that facts presented in a film were biased to better fit the narrative. Had everything been completely true or completely untrue, I would have been surprised.”
Rob Brannan, a food and nutrition sciences associate professor in the College of Health Sciences and Professions, assigned the analyses as a class project. He wanted his students to learn how to assess scientific research to prepare them in their future careers, and he thinks they did just that.
“They learned the ability to hear a claim and understand where they need to go to find out whether or not the claim is valid or not valid,” Brannan said. “Anybody can post anything on the Internet. Anybody can make a film with a point of view, and the nutrition people are going to be the frontline professionals that are going to be (answering these claims).”
The class assignment was turned into a public forum because of the awareness and popularity of the films being discussed, Brannan said.
“I knew there was going to be an interest, especially in Athens, because of the local food movement,” he said.
The students hoped to draw an audience interested in health and wellness, nutrition and sustainability, and it seems they did. Many health sciences majors were present – and not just for the extra credit.
“I came because I’m a community health major and, right now, I’m interested in chronic disease management, and diet is a large part of that,” said senior Ashley Roberts.
Another viewer was surprised by the high cost of alternative medicine, as it was discussed in the analysis of “Food Matters.”
About 80 students and community members turned out for the session on “Forks Over Knives,” a film that advocates whole food. Though there is, of course, fact in the film, the students found the central thesis to be oversimplified and dramatized. More than half the audience had seen the documentary, and nearly the same number said they were prompted to change their diet as a result.
“I think it's easy to get attached to the emotional argument in a film and not question it critically,” Householder said. “I hope the audience appreciated our efforts … and that perhaps in the future they will turn to scientific resources themselves to question nutrition information presented in films.”
Gina Mussio is a student writer for Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions.