Can you trust industry-funded nutrition research?

The Agenda in the Summer’s Nam Kiwanuka talks with nutrition expert Marion Nestle about how consumers can make informed decisions about food when so much of the science is mostly spin
By Carla Lucchetta - Published on Aug 26, 2019
Nam Kiwanuka and Marion Nestle
Nam Kiwanuka interviews food studies and nutrition expert Marion Nestle.

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There’s nothing wrong with indulging in dark chocolate, right? After all, studies point to its health benefits, and many call it a superfood. While millions of chocolate lovers may use such arguments to justify their favourite treat, food-studies and nutrition scholar Marion Nestle has some words of caution: its reputation is largely the result of marketing, not science. And that’s just one example of research being used to promote products: in her book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, Nestle investigates how food, beverage, and supplement companies regularly fund nutrition science to boost sales.

As Nestle tells Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer, “Chocolate companies spent fortunes to try to demonstrate that dark chocolate is a health food, and almost everyone I know believes it. In fact, you have to eat quite a lot of chocolate, with all its calories and sugar, in order to get the benefits of the flavanol antoxidants that are in unprocessed cocoa. And the processing of cocoa in most chocolate products destroys the flavanol anyway.”

Nestle explains that, in the mid-20th century, food companies such as General Foods, Kraft, and Nestlé created in-house research departments to learn about nutrition science and make sure they were developing health-balanced products. But goals shifted in the 1980s when companies began focusing more on profits and shareholder interests.

The difference between industry-funded nutrition studies and independent ones is often marked, Nestle says. “If you do studies, and there are people who have done this, of industry-funded research — say, on sugar-sweetened beverages and whether they have any affect on obesity and Type 2 diabetes — the industry-funded studies, almost all of them, will say no. But the independently-funded studies, almost all of them, will say yes: there’s a big relationship.”

The average consumer, Nestle notes, can find it hard to differentiate between the two — and she believes that the public needs to be educated about the sources of nutrition research to make informed choices about food. “As a consumer, you’re up against, I would say, anything that defies common sense. You always want to use common sense when looking at nutrition issues. Nutrition research is extremely difficult to do because people eat diets of such extraordinary complexity, and you cannot lock people up in cages for 40 years and feed them defined diets and then see what happens to them.”

Nestle’s latest venture, foodpolitics.com, represents an attempt to help the public decipher what she calls the “industry-funded study of the week.”

“I think the issue of who paid for the study is one that everybody should be asking,” she says.

Watch Nam Kiwanuka’s interview with Marion Nestle on The Agenda in the Summer tonight at 8 p.m., or stream it on Facebook or Twitter.​​​​​​​

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