Confused by Nutrition Research? Sloppy Science May Be to Blame

In the book, “Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat,” Marion Nestle, emerita professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, points out that “pomegranates might have high antioxidant activity,” then asks “compared to what?” Are they more healthful than (much cheaper) grapes?

Here’s how the company POM Wonderful responded to Dr. Nestle’s challenge: “Comparing the health benefits of our product to other juices is not a key objective of our extensive research program.” To which I would ask, “If you’re selling ‘health,’ why wouldn’t it be?”

The answer, as Dr. Nestle’s extensive research shows, is that the unstated goal of most company-sponsored studies is to increase the bottom line. “It’s marketing research, not science,” she said in an interview. It matters not whether the food in question is considered healthy, like wild blueberries and avocados, or it’s laden with health-robbing calories from fats, sugars and refined starches.

Noting that nutrition research, especially that funded by industry, “requires careful interpretation,” she suggests an approach that all consumers would be wise to follow:

“Whenever I see studies claiming benefits for a single food, I want to know three things: whether the results are biologically plausible; whether the study controlled for other dietary, behavioral, or lifestyle factors that could have influenced its result; and who sponsored it.”

Consider the studies sponsored by the soft-drink industry, in which Coca-Cola has led an effort to undermine the contribution of sugar-laden carbonated water to the nation’s obesity epidemic. For example, the company funded a study of childhood obesity that, without looking for a possible link between overweight and sugary soft drinks, concluded that low physical activity, inadequate sleep and lots of television watching were most important.

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