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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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 bigger problem with the cosy relationship between dietitians and the food industry

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Lots of drama in the dietetic world last week. No, I’m not talking about the wildly popular Dietitians Day. First, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in the US brokered a facepalm worthy deal with Kraft to have their logo placed on process cheese slices. Dietitians everywhere (myself included) were outraged, certainly not shocked, but definitely outraged. And rightfully so. How are people supposed to take us seriously when an organization claiming to represent thousands of dietitians is promoting process cheese. A product that the majority of us would neither consume nor recommend to clients. On the defensive, AND released a statement (you may need to scroll down a bit to find the post) claiming that the prominent placement of their logo on the process cheese was not indicative of endorsement. Rather, the logo was indicative of Kraft’s support of AND. Right. We all know that doesn’t matter. It’s the perception that matters and everyone perceived the placement of the AND logo as an endorsement of the questionable product. Especially since the initial accompanying pronouncement stated that AND was proud to have their logo appearing on Kraft singles as many children don’t consume enough calcium and vitamin D. AND will be forming a committee to address the concerns of members regarding this deal with Kraft, in MAY. If you agree that this “partnership” is wrong then please take a minute to sign the Change.org petition asking AND to “repeal the seal”.

Hot on the heels of the AND Kraft debacle was the news that a number of dietitians had promoted mini-Coke cans as “healthy snacks”. These dietitians were likely all paid for selling their souls this work, although one of them couldn’t recall if she was paid by Coke or not. Gee, I wish I was making so much money that I could forget whether or not I was paid for something. While I hate to rag on fellow dietitians, it frustrates me to no end to hear of others doing such a disservice to our profession.

Both of these stories exemplify how the relationship between the food industry and dietetics/dietitians undermines our integrity as health professionals. There is a larger problem here. Dietetic organizations need sources of funding that do not come with conflicts of interest. Dietitians need more and better job opportunities. I understand that it’s a tough job market. Believe me, I’m not raking in the dough and I’m only quasi working as a dietitian. However, I would sooner give-up my status as a registered dietitian than to use it to promote questionable food and beverage choices. With the constantly changing science and messages in nutrition it’s hard enough to convince people to trust us. Is it really worth sacrificing our credibility to make a buck?


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Should the food industry be allowed at the obesity debate?

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This article: Food firms could be out of the obesity debate baffled me. The by-line reads: “Food and drink manufacturers must emphasize the role of exercise in reducing obesity or risk being sidelined in the debate and hit with stricter regulation, according to new research.” What? Isn’t that exactly what many food and beverage companies are doing? I seem to remember Coke, for example, having an ad campaign based around how many calories it takes to burn off a coke. Isn’t this one of the biggest problems with the current debate? That you can out-run your fork? That food manufacturers want us to believe that we’re fat because we don’t move enough, not because we’re not eating properly? Sorry, hate to break it to ya, but the most important factor in losing, and maintaining weight loss, is diet. And the best way to attain a healthy diet is to prepare it ourselves rather than relying on packaged, processed, manufactured foods.

Of course, the by-line obscures one of the major recommendations of the research. That recommendation is that the role of public health in education and health programming should be emphasized. Sadly, they do state that food manufacturers should be making greater efforts to reformulate their products to meet the weight management needs of the consumers. Honestly, I think this is a fool’s errand. It’s been done before; and look where all those low-fat and fat-free products got us? Here. Greater import needs to be placed on cooking and the food system needs to be restructured so that “junk” foods are no longer subsidized, while fruits and vegetables are.

I for one, don’t see it as any great tragedy if the food industry was to be sidelined in the obesity debate. Frankly, their inclusion only serves their interests and keeps the mistaken belief that individual responsibility is the key to conquering obesity alive.


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Have a merry Coca Cola Christmas

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Today I just want to have a little rant about the obesogenic environment we live in.

The other day I had to go to Walmart for something. I know, I know. It’s a store that I normally avoid like the plague but knitting emergencies do strange things to people. Anyway… Christmas is popping up all over the place despite the fact that it’s obscenely early and one of the first things I saw upon entering Walmart was a huge bin of Coke Christmas ornaments. These weren’t just ornaments though, they were bottles of Coke shaped like Christmas balls. Beside the fact that they’re completely impractical, they’d break pretty much any branch, why on earth do we need to put pop on a Christmas tree? I truly hope that this is a sign that the mighty are falling. If Coca Cola are becoming so desperate in their marketing that they’re resorting to make ornaments filled with pop maybe they’re not doing so well. Honestly, there is more than enough celebratory eating over the holidays is it really necessary that people adorn their trees with Coke???

Later that same day I went to Starbucks for coffee with a friend. I know, more corporate shame. Would you believe that there are no other coffee shops in the city open past 6 pm? I would choose somewhere local in a heartbeat but without that option I found myself ordering one of the new chestnut praline lattes. Because it was night time and I’m an old dietitian I ordered it decaf, half sweet, with 2% milk. Silly me, because I failed to request no whipped cream or sugary sprinkles. I’ve ranted about the use of sweetened coffee as the default for their iced coffees before but really, this is just a crime against coffee. No coffee shop beverage, aside from an espresso con panna, should automatically come with whipped cream and sugary sprinkles. A latte by definition is espresso, steamed milk, and a little bit of foam. Not whipped cream. Not sprinkles. If customers want those options they should have to specially request them and pay a little extra. Why must the unhealthy option be the default? Even at half sweet it tasted very sweet. According to the Starbucks website there’s 31 grams of sugar in a tall chestnut praline latte. That means in my half sweet version (which I scooped the whipped cream and sprinkles off of) there was still nearly 4 teaspoons of sugar! If I ever get it again I’m going for 1/4 sweet, which, at 2 teaspoons of sugar is still too sweet. Screw it, I’ll just have an herbal tea.