3.17.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: Appetite for Profit, Chapter 8

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Appetite for Profit, Chapter 7: Co-opting the Science

Summary:

"The corporate takeover of academic research is a growing problem that threatens to undermine the entire scientific process."  Food companies - or more often their attorneys and consultants - employ scientists to conduct research and opine in such a way as to cast a positive light on their products' healthfulness.  These third-party experts are used to create an illusion of impartiality.  Scientific studies funded by the industry often reach surprisingly industry-friendly results.

Well-respected health organizations are not immune from the taint of corporate influence.  The American Diabetes Association (ADA), for example, has accepted millions of dollars in contributions from Cadbury Schweppes.  After the "alliance" was announced, the ADA's chief scientific and medical officer stated in an interview that "[t]here is not a shred of evidence that sugar per se has anything to do with getting diabetes."  Of course, the ADA was already receiving donations from the likes of Kraft and General Mills.

The American Council on Science and Health (ASCH) is, similar to CCF, a food industry front group that aims to create a sense of third-party expertise in nutrition.  It espouses viewpoints of "no bad foods" and "calories in, calories out" to argue against any inference that, for instance, sodas shouldn't be sold in schools.  Such messages are of great benefit to beverage manufacturers, and of potentially great detriment to schoolchildren.

In addition to groups that are merely funded by industry, there are groups that have been assembled by and are employed by them.  One such body is the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition.  This research group, which is owned and operated by cereal giant General Mills, regularly conducts studies finding enormous health benefits associated with whole grains.  The Bell Institute has also been a driving force behind claims that dairy products contribute to weight loss.  Incidentally, General Mills also owns Yoplait brand yogurts.  Similarly, Coca-Cola's Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness has insisted that soda consumption has no connection to obesity.

"As more and more health experts and organizations slide down the slippery slope of accepting corporate funding, we will ultimately lose a critical tool for effective policymaking."  Translation: trust no one.

Discussion:

In this chapter we see the real problem with the fact that Simon is an attorney, not a scientist or even a public health expert.  She is not familiar with the process by which peer-reviewed articles are submitted, reviewed, accepted, and published by journals.  But of course, neither are most of the people who see headlines about such articles.  Also, that's not to say that influential conflicts don't exist - certainly they do.  Nutritionist Marion Nestle has published a number of blog posts that thoroughly discuss conflicts of interest in food research.

Simon also spends numerous pages of this chapter somewhat childishly complaining once again about the Center for Consumer Freedom.  Like, for real Michele, we get it.  You don't like them.  They're industry shills.  They've attacked you personally.  They spread misinformation.  We got it when you devoted ALL OF CHAPTER THREE to the group.

I'd like to note here that, despite my deep and abiding reverence for scientific knowledge, I am skeptical of nutrition science - and I think you should be too.  Here's why: the Western world is decades further behind in its understanding of nutrition than in other medical topics, because medical research has ignored nutrition in a really profound way pretty much forever.  (I'll spare you my personal anecdotal evidence on this, but hit me up in the comments if you want to hear about it.)

Each time any researcher comes to some sort of conclusion it's hailed as gospel... until it's proven false a few years later that is.  (Remember when transfatty margarine was sooooo much healthier for you than butter?)  As a result, each time I hear some news source proclaim that this food is magic or that food is poison, I think of when medical science was convinced that small demons caused all ailments and exorcism / leaches were the best cures.

Add to that the fact that much of the nutrition research happening today is funded by the industry - which no doubt seeks specific results - and it's wise to take any "revolutionary" new piece of nutrition information with more than a grain of salt.

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