In a week when the mainstream media were focused on the health care reform battle raging in Washington, the blogosphere highlighted two stories that presented a different kind of health debate. Could blue M&M’s have some therapeutic properties? And does organic produce offer major nutritional benefits?

On Twitter, the internal turmoil in Iran not only continued to dominate, it reached its highest point in weeks.  

From July 27-31, 39% of the links from blogs and some other social media were aimed at two stories about food, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The top story, accounting for 25% of the links, was about an ingredient not often associated with healing. According to a July 28 report on, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center discovered that a blue dye in the candy M&M’s could help reduce damage caused by spine injuries. Researchers discovered the medical potential of the compound Brilliant Blue G (BBG) after doing tests on rats, noting that the only side effect appeared to be that treated animals temporarily turned blue.[1] Another 14% of the links connected to a BBC story that British researchers have concluded that organic produce has little more nutritional value than food that is grown conventionally.

The rest of the top stories in blogs last week related to political matters that garnered significant attention in the mainstream press as well.

Stories related to the fallout from the arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. accounted for 14% of all the links. Fourth (at 9%) were stories about the legislative battle over health care reform, most of which revolved around  a July 26 report in the New York Post claiming the bill being debated in the House of Representatives contains the outdated term "retarded" to refer to people with mental disabilities. And fifth (at 7%) was a story on persistent rumors about Barack Obama’s birth certificate spread by the so-called "birthers." This story quoted the director of the Hawaii State Department of Health, Dr. Chiyome Fukino, as saying he has personally seen the original records proving Obama was born in Hawaii and not overseas, as some who question Obama’s citizenship have claimed.

In the traditional press last week, the debate over health care reform was the No. 1 subject, accounting for 19% of the week’s newshole, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. Next was the ongoing economic situation (14%) followed by the arrest of Professor Gates (8%), new developments surrounding the death of Michael Jackson (4%) and coverage of the Obama administration fueled mostly by the controversy over Obama’s birth certificate (3%).

On Twitter last week, there was a dramatic surge of attention to the political unrest in Iran. The week included a confrontation between protestors and police at the gravesite of "Neda," the young woman killed during demonstrations who became a worldwide symbol of opposition to the regime. Last week, fully 96% of the news-focused links on Twitter went to stories about Iran. While this marks the seventh straight week that Iran has led all news-related links in Twitter traffic, that number is a major increase over the level of attention in the previous two weeks (when Iran made up 42% and 49%).

There was no such spike in interest in the situation in Iran in the mainstream press, however, where last week the subject accounted for only 2% of the week’s overall newshole in the traditional media, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index.

Blogs and Food

When many bloggers came across the CNN report that dye used in blue M&M’s and Gatorade could help reduce damage caused by spinal cord injuries, the reaction was mostly surprise. Researchers injected the compound into rats that had spinal cord injuries, and the rats were able to walk again, albeit with a limp. The only reported side effect was that the subjects turned blue. That was something many bloggers seemed okay with.

"So you are telling me someone could walk again and be able to become blue? Man that is a cool trade off if you ask me!" posted Clemento at Absolute Random. "I hope this discovery really works and helps people in the future though, so lets keep our fingers crossed. In the meantime you better keep popping those blue M&M’s!"*

"When you went shopping last night, I hope you went ahead and picked up one of those large sacks of M&Ms. Because there’s about to be a run on them," predicted Justin Plus One. "In case you all didn’t hear, scientists have discovered that blue M&Ms can reduce spinal injuries …Totally random, but hey, I love excuses to eat more candy."

Others were preoccupied with the picture of the blue-tinted rat that accompanied the story.

"Isn’t he the CUTEST thing you’ve ever seen?" asked sonia6349. "At least he’s blue for a good cause!"

"Forget the medical benefits, I want this blue mouse!" added ryptide.

The news was not so good for the organic food movement in social media. Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine looked at 55 studies on health and organic food from the past 50 years and concluded there was little nutritional difference between organically and conventionally grown food. That caught the attention of bloggers, too, but the reaction to this online was divided.

Some were skeptical of the conclusion.

"I think it’s still safe to affirm that organic foods are indeed healthier if not for the nutritional benefits," argued irene design. "Think of all the things you do not ingest when you eat organically grown foods. Pesticides, chemically-derived fertilizers, anti-biotics and hormones in meat…the list goes on. To me the common sense still says that organics are better (i.e. healthier) whether or not they are more ‘nutritious’."

Others were pleased with the findings. "Maybe now we can get on with the business of feeding people and using tech to do so as opposed to bringing the world back to the 19th century," critiqued Cyberhillbilly.

And some felt that the focus on health benefits missed the point altogether.

"People tend to forget that the reason for going organic was initially not human health, it was ecosystem health, and so it should remain," explained Rami Zurayk at Land and People.

Iran Dominates Twitter Once Again

Not only did the amount of attention paid to Iran by Twitter increase dramatically last week. There was also much more diversity in the links that were highlighted.

For the past few weeks, the significant majority of Iran-related links went to a Web site that included "Green Briefs," summaries of events aggregated by Iranian translator Josh Shahryar from Twitter feeds he deems reliable. Several of these Green Briefs were  among the most popular tweet links last week as well (such as this one from July 25 which described protests in support of Iranian rights in more than 100 cities around the world), but a number of other types of stories were also popular. This has not been true in the previous few weeks, suggesting an increase in the variety of sources people were using to get information about Iran.