What Role Does The Food Industry Play In Nutrition Science?
Who is allowed to have a voice in the debate on nutrition and health? Who is allowed to have a seat at the table? There is no shortage of opinions on how to answer that question.
In an opinion piece published today on Al Jazeera America, dietitian and co-founder of “Dietitians for Professional Integrity” Andy Bellatti writes of the involvements of food and beverage manufacturers in professional nutrition research organizations such as the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) (Full disclosure: Both DSM and myself personally are proud and active members of the American Society for Nutrition). This article is largely based upon a report released recently by the advocacy group Eat Drink Politics entitled “Nutrition scientists on the take from big food: has the American Society for Nutrition lost all credibility?”. Both the article and the report allege that the views of ASN are biased by their engagement with food and beverage manufacturers, and that this has resulted in statements from the society that contains “industry-friendly rhetoric that allows purveyors of processed foods to deflect blame and does a public disservice, giving the general public no useful nutritional guidance”.
What I believe is lost on this argument is the value of stakeholder engagement and the role that public-private partnerships (such as those ASN often engages in with member companies). Mr. Bellatti dismisses these relationships outright, summarizing them by saying “Health organizations often try to defend these ties by arguing that industry collaboration is needed to effect change. But sitting at the table with industry erroneously assumes that all players at the table are equal, when in fact industry has deep pockets, seasoned lobbyists and access to influential policymakers”.
The American Society for Nutrition, and other organizations that engage with industry stakeholders, produce significant amounts of meaningful primary research and produce evidence-based position statements repeatedly. One such example, is a 2014 scientific statement from the society entitled “Processed foods: contributions to nutrition”. This statement considered numerous lines of evidence to try and better understand the role these foods play in our overall diet.
In Mr. Belatti’s article, he refers to a “staunch defense” of processed foods by ASN, and presumably as no citation was offered he is referring to this 2014 scientific statement. Mr. Bellatti claims in his article that ASN stated “..that a sliced apple is just as ‘processed’ as minimally nutritious junk foods such as Doritos, Pop-Tarts and Lucky Charms.” There’s a number of problems with Mr. Bellatti’s claim, most notably the fact that in this paper the words “apple”, “Doritos”, “Pop-Tarts” or “Lucky Charms” never appear in the ASN statement. In their position, they outline categories of processed foods, which would include washed and packaged fruits (like sliced apples) as “Foods that require processing or production (also called ‘minimally processed’)”, and placing snack foods like breakfast cereal (Lucky Charms being an example) in the category of “Ready-to-eat foods requiring minimal or no preparation”. So even in principle Mr. Bellatti’s claim is false as apples were categorized separately from foods like Doritos, Pop-Tarts, and Lucky Charms – although it’s again worth noting that the direct comparison was never actually made in the ASN statement, contrary to Mr. Bellatti’s assertion.
The ASN statement does, however, rely on national dietary intake surveys and other lines of evidence to conclude simply that “Diets are more likely to meet food guidance recommendations if nutrient-dense foods, either processed or not, are selected”, and furthermore that “Nutrition and food science professionals, the food industry, and other stakeholders can help improve the diets of Americans by providing a nutritious food supply that is safe, enjoyable, affordable, and sustainable by communicating effectively and accurately with each other and by working together to improve the overall knowledge of consumers”. In my opinion, that’s a fair and evidence-based conclusion to a rather complicated question.
It’s not a secret that nutrition is an emotionally charged topic. If you really think about it, nearly every occasion in our lives, good or bad, is marked with food and drinks. Celebrating? Let’s get dinner! Sad? Let’s chat over a cup of tea. The fact that food, and by extension nutrition, are so integral to our lives results in emotionally charged arguments which can cloud our judgment. No one group should have control over the narrative of dietary guidance – the data does.
Sadly, sometimes our emotions can get the best of us and in our passion for what we believe is the truth we can sometimes distort the facts. Researchers call this “white hat bias” – named for the convention that the “good guy” in Western movies were shown wearing a white hat, as opposed to to the “bad guy” who typically wore a black hat. White hat bias is defined as “bias leading to distortion of information in the service of what may be perceived to be righteous ends”. No matter how high the perceived moral high ground of a topic, even one such as the (much and often exaggerated) evils of processed foods, we always need to let the data drive our decisions.
Processed foods are major contributors to micronutrient intake for Americans, across all ages. Without nutrients coming from enriched and fortified foods (e.g., those that are processed), inadequacy of nutrients like vitamin D would be ubiquitous – 100% of the population would not meet the need for vitamin D through naturally occurring sources. And that’s just one example – a significant proportion of our intake of several important nutrients like dietary fiber, calcium and potassium all come from processed foods. Hence why ASN made that conclusion, and hence how we know that processed foods play an important role in achieving a healthy diet.
Dietitians and nutrition scientists, like Mr. Bellatti and myself, recognize the importance of nutrition in maintaining health and are passionate in our desire to help people lead healthier lives by improving their diets. However, I firmly believe we need to let evidence drive these beliefs, and not let false information drive our dietary behaviors. Making false claims about nutrition topics, no matter how morally righteous we believe to be our cause, is simply unethical and only adds to the mass confusion that impacts consumers across the country. We need to recognize that nutritionists from all areas – academia, government, and yes, even private industry – are important stakeholders in this arena. Just as ASN said, only by working together with active communication can we improve consumer knowledge and help Americans lead healthier lives.
Cope MB, Allison DB. White hat bias: examples of its presence in obesity research and a call for renewed commitment to faithfulness in research reporting. Int J Obesity 2010; 34: 84-88.
Fulgoni VL 3rd, Keast DR, Bailey RL, Dwyer J. Foods, fortificants, and supplements: Where do Americans get their nutrients? J Nutr 2011; 141(10): 1847-1854.
Weaver CM, Dwyer J, Fulgoni VL 3rd, et al. Processed foods: contributions to nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr 2014; 99(6): 1525-1542.