Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Nutrition Science for Sale?

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Food Marketing

By Sally Feltner, PhD, RDN

The Problem

Nutrition research has always had problems with study design and is in reality an infant science – there is so much we don’t know about diet and health interactions. That knowledge will hopefully be resolved with time. For now there are other issues that need to be addressed. “The business sector that comprises agribusiness, food manufacturers, and marketers collectively referred to as ‘Big Food’ has invaded nutrition science.” Their goal is to maximize its profit margins. (JAMA Forum, Lawrence Gostin, JD.

The very integrity and credibility of science and the scientific method is being challenged by these practices for profit. Dietitians and nutritionists that disseminate nutrition information to the public used to be able to reasonably count on scientific evidence to back our advice. But now that is clouded by the very food companies we are often forced to rely on for our nutrition health. When I read a particular study, I find that I often wonder if I can trust the conclusions before I post the results on my blog.

What tactics are used by industries to influence nutrition decisions?

  1. Right now government funding for nutrition science is not even a priority. That creates many opportunities for food companies and industry groups to sponsor more research studies and at the same time use them as marketing techniques or broadcast misleading headlines.
  2. When a food company makes a heath claim on their product label, they are required by the FDA to back up the claim with research. Therefore, they are eager to fund these studies even though the support can be weak and manipulated to their advantage.
  3. Other tactics they use involve paying academics to write favorable results of a study or lobbying government agencies to make decisions about dietary guidelines. Many dietitians are spokespersons for food brands or groups. I assume some of these alliances involve some form of payment for their services.

A few years ago  I was offered a relatively generous fee to write a promotional brochure on a mineral supplement called germanium. After looking at the research, I found the following:

“Germanium can break down your kidney tissue, causing kidney damage. In some cases, germanium can even cause chronic kidney failure and death.” Following this declaration was a long list of other undesirable side effects.

Needless to say, I told the supplement company owner that I couldn’t promote such a product ethically or honestly.  Of course he was not pleased since he planned to use the brochure for marketing purposes and did not appear to be terribly concerned about the facts. Obviously, I did not receive or take any payments.  Today when germanium is searched on the Internet, it still carries the warning about the kidney damage and its products are even banned in some countries. This experience taught me a valuable lesson about how these tactics in this case, a supplement company, can corrupt evidence-based scientific research findings.

It is troublesome that some studies may be legitimate and honestly express the conclusions of the authors. It is so difficult to find the conflicts of interest and/or funding sources of many of the studies, especially when one can only have access to the abstracts of the study.  This can lead us to miss some important positive information that consumers could use.

Evaluating Nutrition Information : Ask yourself the following questions when reading any nutrition information.

  • Does it make sense? Is it too good to be true? Does it pose a risk?
  • What’s the source? Is it selling something? Is it an opinion?
  • Is it based on sound scientific method principles?  Is the study well controlled? Were the participants and researchers blinded? (a double-blind study) How large was the sample size? Was it a human study or an animal study?
  • Were the results interpreted accurately? Sometimes the conclusions do not strongly support the results. It is unbelievable, but it It happens!
  • Has it stood the test of time? Was it the first study to report a particular finding? Has the study been repeated?

Being aware of the many problems associated with nutrition science and the food industry will ultimately allow you make informed decisions about your nutrition concerns and not be misguided by the marketing schemes and tactics that often will try to persuade us to buy their products.



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