bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Dr Folta and Dr Blair and the problem with industry funding

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Photo: Coke de Plume by BFLV on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A couple of things happened in the scientific world in fairly short succession recently. I spent a lot of time waffling about whether or not I should write about them. Primarily because I don’t want to draw the ire of the pro-GMO community. I see a lot of rabid support for “science” on twitter and I fear being dismissed as anti-science. But this post isn’t about whether or not GMOs are great, or even whether or not they’re safe. It’s not about my opinions on genetic modification nor organic farming. “What is it about?” you ask. It’s about credibility and honesty in scientific research and dissemination of said research.

A few weeks ago the Internets got their collective panties in a twist because some scientists were revealed to have received money from Monsanto. In particular, one scientist received money to pay for his travel expenses in order to enable him to speak at events. Naturally, he was speaking in support of genetic modification, which aligns with Monsanto’s values. I’ve since seen his supporters claim that this information was freely available to anyone who was interested and that he had never failed to disclose his funding sources. I’ve also seen his detractors attribute quotes to him clearly stating that he did not receive money from Monsanto. I don’t know who to believe. It doesn’t really matter who I (or anyone) believes anyway. The important fact of the matter is that he received money from Monsanto to speak at conferences and events.

The following week the news broke that a number of scientists have been receiving funding from Coke (via a nonprofit organization) to support their research and other logistics. That research focusing on the import of exercise in weight management. Once again, the Internet was collectively outraged. Okay, I exaggerate. Nearly everyone I follow on twitter, and much of the mainstream media, were outraged. The researchers shrugged and said: what’s the problem, we’ve never hidden the fact that we received money from Coca Cola and that money had no influence on our research findings. Everyone rolled their eyes and said: um, bias, helllooo. 

Here we have two instances of scientific funding by organizations which have vested interests in the results. Here we have two groups of scientists saying that the funding doesn’t matter and that their findings would be the same no matter where the money was coming from. So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that by accepting financial support from organizations that have a vested interest in the results and the messages from theses scientists creates the perception of bias. Even if these scientists are completely impartial, and that’s being incredibly generous given the fact that the majority of industry funded research findings support the interests of the funders, it raises doubts about that impartiality. At worst, the scientists receiving the funding have a conflict of interest. At best, they have a perceived conflict of interest, and perception matters. It also makes for an uneven scientific playing field. If all of the players on one team are having their expenses covered by a benefactor then how can the other team hope to succeed. Even if they are better players, they can’t afford to go to out-of-town matches or find the time for extra practice.

If only the scientists with the pro-GMO message or the scientists with the pro-exercise message are given the platforms to share those messages how can we ever hope to find out the truth?


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The spice for life

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A recent study was being touted in the media for the benefits of eating spicy foods. The study looked at the diets of 512, 891 people (yes, that’s a huge sample size) in several areas of China. Participants were asked how often they ate hot spicy foods; never or almost never, only occasionally, 1 or 2 days a week, 3 to 5 days a week, or 6 or 7 days a week. Spicy foods were defined as; fresh chilli pepper, dried chilli pepper, chilli sauce, chilli oil, and other or don’t know. They found that those who consumed spicy foods most frequently were 14% less likely to die in the next five years than those who never or almost never consumed spicy foods.

Now, I love spicy foods, but I don’t eat them to live longer and this study isn’t really convincing me that any of us should be. One big precaution is the fact that the research was only looking at people in China. The effects may not apply to people of other ethnicities. Also, “spicy” is subjective. Something that I find only slightly spicy might be unbearably spicy to another person, and vice versa. There’s a huge risk of confounding variables when looking at things like this. It’s hard to say for certain whether any reduced risk of mortality can be attributed to the spice. In addition, the study looked at a huge range of ages (30-79) and many causes of mortality making it extremely difficult to ascertain whether or not spicy foods could be held accountable for keeping people alive. In fact, we don’t know if these people actually lived for longer, just that they were less likely to die during the course of the study.

Go ahead, go for the jalapenos if you like them, but don’t suffer through fiery meals 6-7 days a week in an effort to live a little longer.


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Follow Friday: Dietitians of Canada

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It makes me so happy to see that Dietitians of Canada are taking a more active advocacy role. With the (eventually) upcoming federal election in the fall they’ve called on all federal party leaders to commit to a national strategy to reduce food insecurity and increased access to dietitian services.

If you’re interested in supporting their efforts or want to see the party responses, just click on the link above.


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Infographics; heavy on the graphics, light on the info

Every body loves a good infographic. They’re eye-catching, succinct ways of sharing information. The problem is, for the most part, they oversimplify complicated information. At best, that means that viewers end-up getting only a partial picture of an issue. At worst, that means that they hasten the spread of misinformation.

Take the example of the viral Coke infographic.

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This was all over the place a few weeks ago and it made me want to tear out my hair. Don’t get me wrong, I personally dislike Coke (and pop in general) and I’m no fan of their marketing to developing nations and children, but I don’t want to dissuade people from drinking Coke using questionable science. Since this infographic went viral fellow RD Andy Bellatti wrote an excellent piece about it.

Following hot on the footsteps of the original Coke infographic came the Diet Coke infographic:

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And then…

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As Andy points out in his article, such infographics only provide information (and not necessarily accurate information as many people aren’t consuming these beverages in isolation) about a brief period of time. There’s nothing about the long-term implications of regular or excessive consumption of these drinks, which is the real concern. An occasional Coke isn’t going to kill you. It’s the daily, often multiple times a day, consumption of Coke that becomes a concern.

These are just a very small example of the infographics out there. Even when infographics are grounded in good science and information, when taken on their own they may not tell you the whole story. Anyone can put together an infographic. If you want the full picture you need to look beyond the graphic and find more info.


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The skinny on teatox

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Photo by Iyad Tibi on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

last week a friend tweeted this “Skinny Teatox” cleanse telling everyone to eat real food and cc’ed me. I figured it was worth a blog post because so many people think that tea is innocuous, and of course, when it’s being marketed as innocent “natural” herbs, who can blame them? The thing is, natural is not alway superior, nor is it always safe. There are plenty of deadly toxins of natural origin. This tea, while not in the deadly toxin category, is certainly not the healthiest choice, nor is it likely to help you lose weight.

Before I get started dissecting the ingredients though can I just make a brief comment on the price? $35 for SEVEN days! That’s $5 a day! That’s insanity! You can buy many lovely herbal, green, and black teas for a fraction of that price.

They claim that the tea is“Made with 100% natural ingredients that promote good health and weight loss.” The teas also contain no “chemicals” lol. They may however, contain: “Our products may contain all or some of the following: gluten, malva verticellata, cassia angustifolia (senna leaf), cascara sagrada, arctostaphylos uva ursi, ginseng, liquorice, chrysanthemum, orange peel, cinnamon bark, cloves, rhubarb and ginger. Skinny Teatox produces a laxative effect and can be toxic in high doses. Do not consume more than once every two days.” 

Gluten – safe for anyone who doesn’t have celiac disease or a gluten allergy (a protein found in grains)

malva verticillata – (I assume they just misspelled this one, gives you great confidence doesn’t it?) also known as “Chinese mallow” or “Cluter mallow” it’s commonly used as a laxative. Not much is known about side effects but it may affect blood sugar so those with diabetes should probably avoid it (1).

senna leaf – is a common over-the-counter laxative and should not be used regularly because it can be habit forming (i.e. you may come to rely on it to poop).

cascara sagrada – is bark from a shrub, again, used to treat constipation. It can’t be purchased as a drug because questions were raised regarding its safety but manufacturers didn’t want to comply with the FDA testing (not alarming whatsoever) (2). Most side effects are associated with long-term use.

arctostaphylos uva ursi – the leaves of a plant, generally used to treat urinary disorders, and (you guessed it!) constipation! (3). Short term side effects can include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and greenish urine. Long-term side effects can include liver damage, eye problems, breathing problems, convulsions, and death.

ginseng – may lower blood sugar, may act as a stimulant (4).

liquorice – a plant used to treat various digestive issues. May cause issues in people with certain health conditions and is not safe for long-term use (5).

chrysanthemum – used to treat, high blood pressure, chest pain, type 2 diabetes… It’s also a popular summertime tea in China. May cause an allergic reaction in some people as it’s in the same family as ragweed (6).

orange peel – I think we’re getting down into the flavourings now so I’m not going to continue. You get the idea. The vast majority of the ingredients in these natural herbal teas are laxatives. They’re not going to “detox” you or make you “skinny”. And if you need help pooping might I suggest that you save your money and go for some cheaper, safer, healthier natural remedies such as: increasing your fibre and water intake, prunes, coffee, exercise. If you suffer from chronic constipation please speak with your primary health care provider. Disclaimer: This is just a blog, I don’t know your personal medical information and can’t possibly provide you with medical advice in this forum.