Criticisms of Nutrition Science/Science and Lies – The Spread of True and False News Online

Nutrition Science is criticised for relying too much on observational studies and on small short term interventions. Nutrition Science is also criticised for its conclusions continually changing. The reliability of nutrition evidence is criticised in comparison to other disciplines. Evidence based nutrition is best served by using all the evidence across multiple types of studies.

Current controversies in nutrition include the relevance of saturated fat and its diverse food sources including dairy foods, value of very low carbohydrate diets; the effects of vitamin D or fish oil supplements. Other nutrition controversies include health effects of potatoes and fat sources i.e. plant oils, relevance of counting calories versus diet quality for long term control of weight. The time gap between the generation of new knowledge and the implementation of it creates the appearance of additional controversy and an increase in confusion amongst the public. It must be remembered that uncertainty exists in all scientific areas for example cardiology i.e. the usefulness of glucose control and anti-diabetic drugs for decreasing heart attacks and death.

Government and non-profit organisational support for nutrition research is limited. The food industry has a key role in the funding of nutrition research. However, there is a potential for bias. There is a growing range of premium chocolate products – promoted using words such as natural, organic, cacao rich etc. The message (though not stated on the packaging) that new improved chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is good for your health.

Chocolate manufacturers have put a lot of money into funding nutrition science which has been interpreted and selectively reported to show their products in a positive light (during the past twenty years). Consuming flavanols in cocoa is linked with decreased blood pressure. More recent research has used much higher levels of flavanols than are available in products sold commercially. The blood pressure study involved participants receiving an average of 670mg of flavanols. To get that much, a person would have to consume twelve standard 100g bars of dark chocolate or fifty bars of milk chocolate daily.

Research has continually shown that when food companies pay for the studies, they are more likely to get helpful results. US researchers who studied two hundred and six studies about juice, soft drinks and milk, found that those who received industry money were six times more likely to receive neutral or favourable findings compared to those who did not. However it must be stressed that the food industry’s expertise and innovation can help address difficulties in food production and distribution. All parts of the food system will need to be part of the solution whether by voluntary action or legislation.

Most people have an opinion on food and nutrition. The opinion is not always based on science. The loudest most extreme voices can drown out the well informed. New social technologies i.e. Twitter, which assist in the rapid sharing of information can also assist in the spread of misinformation. Vosoughi, Roy and Aral, 2018, found that falsehood diffused significantly farther, deeper, faster and more broadly than the truth in all categories studied. The categories of information studied included politics, urban legends, business, terrorism, science, entertainment and natural disasters. Falsehood was found to reach far more people than the truth. It was also found that many more individuals retweeted falsehood than the truth. From analysis of all news categories studied, it was shown that news about politics, urban legends and science spread to the most people. It was found that falsehoods were seventy percent more likely to be retweeted than the truth. This was even the case when account age, activity level, number of followers/followees of the original tweeter and whether the original tweeter was a verified user – were taken into consideration.

It was found that false rumours inspired greater surprise and greater disgust. It was also found that false news is more novel and that novel information was more likely to be retweeted. False news can drive the misallocation of resources and the misalignment of business investments. The increased likelihood of people to retweet false news than true news is what drives the spread of false news (in spite of network and individual factors that favour the truth). The first step in containing false news is understanding how it is spread.

Nutrition science has been criticised as unreliable. However it must be stressed that nutrition science has made contributions to human health. Understanding of nutrition has progressed from isolated nutrient deficiencies to the importance of food and dietary patterns in chronic disease. Improvements in research methods have generated enough scientific evidence for the formulation of key public health guidelines. Vested interests need to be managed to avoid bias in research findings and public messaging of dietary advice. All stakeholders (including the food industry) must come together to solve nutrition health.

References:

Fleming N. The Dark Truth about Chocolate. The Observer 2018

Mozaffarian D, Forouhi N. Dietary guidelines and health—is nutrition science up

to the task? BMJ 2018 360:k822 doi: 10.1136/bmj.k822

Vosoughi et al. The spread of true and false news online. Science 2018; 359:1146-51

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