French fries are in the news. Err, sorry, “fried potatoes.” And apparently, they’re deadly—really deadly.
Or at least that’s what the headlines are blaring across the Internet today. Here’s a sampling of how the media is covering the story, which is currently sitting near the top spot on Google News’ health section: “Put the french fries down: Eating fried potatoes doubles risk of death, study says”; “Eating fried potatoes doubles your risk of early death, study says.”
This raises the question: just how scared should you be of these nefarious fried potatoes? And is that really what the study is saying?
To get the obvious out of the way, fried foods in general aren’t good for you. They come loaded with calories and fats that can raise your cholesterol. That, in turn, is bad for your heart health and raises the risk for cardiovascular diseases which, yes, can lead to death.
What’s less obvious, at least from the headlines, is that there isn’t something inherently unique to fried potatoes that makes them deadly. In fact, potatoes in general aren’t going to raise your death risk. Don’t take my word for it—that’s literally what the study authors explicitly conclude. “After adjustment for 14 potential baseline confounders, and taking those with the lowest consumption of potatoes as the reference group, participants with the highest consumption of potatoes did not show an increased risk of overall mortality,” they write. “The consumption of unfried potatoes was not associated with an increased mortality risk.”
To be fair, the researchers did conclude that people who ate fried potatoes two to three (or more) times per week were at an elevated death risk. But that topline result doesn’t delve into the numerous caveats that could contribute to that trend. For instance, what else might a person who eats french fries three times per week be consuming in his or her diet? How much do those people exercise? Does the sample contain people who have elevated genetic risk of heart disease or other health problems?
Those sorts of details are critical to accurate science. But much of the coverage surrounding scientific studies tends to be reductive. The last time a click-y nutrition study was in the news, diet soda was the villain (apparently it can triple your stroke risk and raise the chances of developing dementia—except all that is a massive simplification).
Making science palatable to the masses can be difficult. And sometimes, stories do go on to mention caveats and confounding factors, and clarify that correlation isn’t the same thing as causation. But as we’ve come to learn, in social media, headlines are often the only words that readers take away with them.
This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.