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Dumb Dairy Data

June 20, 2017

Let’s be clear about one thing. Data is never dumb. Data is data.

How that data is collected, how it’s interpreted, and actions that are taken as a result can be quite dumb indeed. Now it’s often much more fun to take some data points and tell a snarky story, than it is to actually roll up your sleeves and look at survey questions, results, and analysis.

I get that. But sometimes I see data based stories and they just rub me the wrong way.

What gets me riled up even further is when they are attached to publications that should know better. You know, like the Washington Post. And sure, the story below that drew my ire isn’t in the paper itself, but in the blogs section. So perhaps it doesn’t require the same editorial standards. However, it still bears the brand name of the rag which is trying its best to not let democracy die in the darkness.

And for the most part, I believe in the paper. What I don’t appreciate is the sloppiness behind, The surprising number of American adults who think chocolate milk comes from brown cows. It fits into the editorial narrative, “Americans must be complete idiots considering the results of our last election, here’s more proof.”

Let me cast some doubt, at least on the dairy part of that analysis.

Here’s the first line of the story, “Seven percent of all American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows, according to a nationally representative online survey commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy.”

First of all, I have no idea how this question was asked, or the range of possible responses. Because in truth, there are brown dairy cows, and those cows produce the milk that is ultimately made into chocolate milk.

If you were to ask a lawyer, “Are brown cows used in the production of chocolate milk?,” the answer would unquestionably be, “Yes.”


Which is why it’s so important to look at the survey, and to learn a little bit about the organization leading the research. Because the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy presumably wants to make a case that more consumer education is required about the dairy industry in America.

But let’s get back to the Washington Post, because here’s the second paragraph:

If you do the math, that works out to 16.4 million misinformed, milk-drinking people. The equivalent of the population of Pennsylvania (and then some!) does not know that chocolate milk is milk, cocoa and sugar.

Let’s talk math for a moment. Yes, this claims to be a nationally representative survey sample. That means it was a little over 1,000 adults. I learned this from the Food & Wine story on the same study. Their interpretation of the findings is even more galling in other ways. But I digress.

What’s 7% of 1,000? I’ll tell you. It’s 70. So in this online survey, either seventy people were screwing around, didn’t understand the question, misinterpreted the question, or just didn’t care, and now we’ve got 16.4 million misinformed consumers?

Maybe, but I’m not convinced.

And do you want to talk about misinformed? I think it’s cute that Caitlin Dewey from the Wonkblog thinks that chocolate milk is milk, cocoa, and sugar. She writes on the internet, so I know she can’t be trapped somewhere in the 1950s. Today, however, you would be hard pressed to find some simple ingredients in the chocolate milk you find at the grocery store.

Garelick’s TruMoo starts with milk, sugar, and cocoa, but then adds cornstarch, salt, carrageenan, and natural flavor. They add vitamins in the mix too, but hey, vitamins.

There’s even a milk brand with the audacious name of Purity, which won first place at the World Dairy Expo in 2005 for its chocolate milk, and those ingredients are even less pure. Purity’s chocolate milk doesn’t get to cocoa until the seventh ingredient. First come milk, nonfat milk, cream, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and sugar. Then you get the cocoa. But after that come corn starch, salt, carrageenan, sodium aluminosilicate, and artificial flavor. Yeah, and for good measure, more vitamins are added. Yay, vitamins!

The rest of the Washington Post article goes on to discuss really important stuff. But I’m totally not okay with using a sexy hook based on sketchy surveys to pull readers into a story on how people need to learn more about where food comes from.

People also need to learn where research comes from, because before WaPo took this data and ran with it, Food & Wine played a role in legitimizing it. Maybe I can tear that one apart tomorrow.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Cris permalink
    June 20, 2017 10:19 am

    A voice of reason… thank you!

  2. June 20, 2017 12:05 pm

    Where does boneless chicken come from??? (:

    • RogerK permalink
      June 20, 2017 12:25 pm

      @Zena, from boneless eggs, of course!

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