In this episode, Jordan talks to Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Soda Politics, and Unsavoury Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.
When I first began researching nutrition science, I was struck by the obfuscation of the available information. Particularly how difficult it was to traverse between scientific fact, and scientific :fact as advised by the food companies”.
Michael Moss’s book Salt, Sugar, Fat was my first discovery of the tactics food companies have used over the years to persuade us to buy their products.
In this discussion Marion explains:
- That food companies are often financially involved in these scientific reports, with a clear target as to expected results.
- If the results do not match what the food companies want to say, the negative assertions are not published.
- In such reports, small positive results are often inflated, while negative results are omitted or down-played.
- That food marketing is only marketing, and has nothing to do with any nutritional value of the food.
- How food companies are only interested in producing profits for their investors, and are not public service companies looking out for our wellbeing.
- How “New Improved Taste” etc, is just a marketing strategy which engages you to keep buying these products.
Guidelines To Help You Define Food Fact From Food Fiction
- If a scientific report relies on a press release; it’s marketing, not science.
- If the claim that a single ingredient or food can reduce risk of a non-communicable disease like diabetes, cancer or heart disease, obesity etc, that’s a huge red flag. There is not a single ingredient which can reduce the risk of any of these diseases. This can only be done with a combination of lifestyle changes such as eating whole foods, being more active, and getting more sleep.
- Watch out for words like “miracle” or “breakthrough”. These are more marketing words. Science never works that way.
- Whenever you see the words “may” or “might”, you should also read “may not” and “might not”. The chances are that’s much more likely what it means.
- Watch out for studies by food companies which have a strong presumption of bias. If the study does not come up with the results the company wants, they are not going to get funded. So we end up with some kind of BS industrial complex where the scientific reports only tell you what the food company wants you to see. This is just more marketing.
- Whenever you see a specific health claim for a specific food, you need to think about three things:
- Whether the results are biologically possible?
- Who sponsored the study?
- Did the study control for other factors such as lifestyle changes, diet, physical activity, environment etc. These are often ignored.
You would think that scientists who understand how cognitive bias works, would create studies and control for bias. But that simply does not happen, because the scientist creating the study is a human. And humans, no matter whether we recognise we have a bias or not, do have a bias. It’s simply how our brains work.
It’s not that funding can corrupt the person conducting the study. But it can actually influence the design of the study, the data used within the study, or the published results of the study. Just refer to the recent blog on Alzheimer’s Science to show how this can work.
Recognising a conflict of interest does not solve the problem. Recognising the bias, does not solve the bias.
As with most conclusions around such discussions, it comes down to our desire to learn how these things work, combined with our own critical thinking.
There are too many clickbait headlines which manifest into our brains. Do not stop with the headlines. Dig deeper. Apply the above guidelines to your thinking process. And become a more informed educated member of society.
It can only be good for you and your loved ones.