Origins of a Euromyth

Water: More contentious than you'd think

Dear readers: Quite a treat for you today! We have the pleasure of witnessing the birth of a genuine Euromyth right now, as it happens.

First, a bit of background. Cast your thoughts back to February 2011 (if you need help with that, it was back when we thought Greece was the only Euro-zone country about to go broke. It was more innocent time).

Anyway. In February, a scientific panel under the European Food Safety Authority published an opinion on an application by two German professors. The application asked for an approval of the health claim that “regular consumption of significant amounts of water can reduce the risk of development of dehydration and of concomitant decrease of performance”. Further, it was made pursuant to Article 14 of Regulation (EC) 1924/2006 on nutrition and health claims made on foods which basically regulates what food manufacturers can and can’t say about how wonderful and healthy their products are.

The EFSA panel opined that this claim was inadmissible because (at least in my layman’s interpretation; the opinion is extremely concise) the applicants’ proposed risk factors for dehydration, “water loss in tissues” or “reduced water content in tissues”, were not really risk factors, but rather “measurements”. In other words, the application did not identify any actual risk factors that could cause dehydration, but only symptoms of it. That’s sort of important, not least because there are plenty of diseases that cause a serious enough dehydration that just drinking ever so much water won’t do much to help you (e.g. cholera). So I guess it is the equivalent of claiming that putting a cool, damp cloth on your head will reduce the risk of fever – it may reduce your temperature (slightly), but it’ll neither cure not prevent the fundamental cause of the fever.

So all in all, a nine months old contrary-to-common-sense-but-reasonably-logical-if-you-think-about-it opinion on a probably-not-entirely-unvexatious application from an EU agency that most people have probably never heard about (which is a shame, because they’re important).

But then: Enter the Express. <cue ominous music>

Never ones to waste an opportunity to make the EU look bad and sell some copies, the gallant reporters of that fine newspaper apparently noticed the publication of that opinion from February in the EU Official Journal of last Friday (things do move pretty slowly in the EU), and ran (with?) the story under the headline “EU SAYS WATER IS NOT HEALTHY“.

It’s pretty much up to the usual standards of the Express, but to their credit, though, they  actually went so far as to ask for a statement from the Commission’s UK Representation, which said that, “Of course drinking water is essential for health and the commission is not stopping anyone from saying so. … This is a specific case with specific characteristics. Either way the final decision is for member states.”

That clarification had unfortunately gone missing when the Daily Mail (“Now barmy EU says you CAN’T claim drinking water stops dehydration“) and The Telegraph (“EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration“) followed quick on the heels of the Expres with their own versions of the story. That last article in particular seems to have launched the story into the Internet – a Google search for the exact phrase “EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration” currently returns about 138,000 results, which is pretty respectable in just three days.

Again, credit where credit is due: The Telegraph did run a piece by Professor of Nutrition Brian Ratcliffe who tries to explain why the whole thing does make sense, but somehow, I doubt that one will get quite so much traction. (In case you’re wondering, there are nine hits for a Google search for “Why the EU’s decision on bottled water was right” at the time of writing.)

And so the myth is born. At least hundreds of thousands of people now ‘know’ that the EU won’t let you say that water prevents dehydration, just like millions of people ‘know’ that the EU banned crooked bananas back in 1995. Nobody knows or understands the actual context, and everything got just a little bit stupider. Splendid work, British media.

(See also Martin Robbins’ take at the Guardian.)

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2 Responses to Origins of a Euromyth

  1. Pingback: Hooray for News Math: 10=13 | Facts and Norms

  2. Pingback: De nominibus piscium | Facts and Norms

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