Amplifiers of Bad Science | How Food Companies Distort Nutrition Science (Part II)
This is the second installment in a series about how food industry meddling biases nutrition science research to its advantage and at the expense of our health. In this blog post, we take a look at the roles popular media and social media play in amplifying bad science, spreading confusion, and doing the food industry’s dirty work.
In our previous post in this series, we described the ways in which the food industry interferes with and undermines the scientific process in nutrition research.
While these meddling food companies certainly deserve the lion’s share of the blame for nutrition confusion among the general public, the reality is that they get a lot of help, if unintentionally, from popular media outlets, uncritical journalists, and social media platforms whose algorithms give controversies and conspiracies their silent endorsements.
It’s bad enough that some of the most powerful food industry actors intentionally disrupt legitimate science by funding poorly designed studies and wheedling their way into academia. It’s another level of deception when ‘news’ outlets and other popular media, who have business relationships with the food industry through paid advertising, betray the fundamentals of good science journalism with uncritical coverage of industry-influenced studies.
The danger of sloppy fact-checking, aside from the obvious fact that outlets are publishing misinformation, is that it leaves lay people either helplessly confused or with a false sense of competence about healthy diets. When a person reads an uncritical article explaining the “science” behind the virtues of cholesterol-packed eggs, for example, that person will feel they have gained in-depth knowledge when in fact they have been gravely misled.
I don’t believe that popular media outlets do this on purpose. Rather, in these click-bait and ad revenue-driven times, outlets latch onto controversy and ideas that seem to “upend” scientific consensus. Just as academics who receive money from corporate sponsors may be plagued by unconscious bias, so too may science journalists be unconsciously seduced by the rewards of covering a “disruptive” industry-funded study. Oftentimes science journalists don’t even have the training to discern between good and bad nutrition science, even if they do come from a “STEM” or health science background.
Case in point: This Atlantic article, which our blog has previously covered, extolling saturated fat was written by a medical doctor and professor at Yale’s school of public health. Medical doctors aren’t nutrition scientists, and most do not regularly follow advances in nutrition science. Yet, the authority of being an M.D. and a professor at an Ivy League institution would give even skeptical lay people a false sense of confidence in the author’s interpretation of the science.
To be fair, most of the bad nutrition articles you will come across will not be in the more reputable outlets—with maybe the exception of TIME magazine, which has been consistently problematic—but rather in men’s and women’s lifestyle and fitness magazines, especially in their online content. They likely don’t have dedicated science reporters, so they’re less apt to do their due diligence and are overall less rigorous and balanced in their coverage.
An amusing real-world experiment highlights this difference. Scientist and science journalist John Bohannon, along with a few colleagues, ran a completely real randomized controlled trial with human subjects. The goal of the study, which had participants eat (or not eat) chocolate for three weeks while following a ‘low-carb’ diet, wasn’t to make a meaningful contribution to our understanding of nutrition. Rather, the researchers were intentionally fishing for statistically significant (but highly dubious) findings that could be published in a pay-to-play science journal, then covered in popular media outlets. The point of the operation was to expose how easy it is to generate and publish bad nutrition research that makes headlines across the world.
So how did Bohannon and his team do it? They kept the sample size low, only 16 participants, and made the study duration uselessly short, just 21 days. They took 18 different measurements, including weight, blood cholesterol, sleep quality, and more. These factors combined made it much more likely that the study would produce ‘statistically significant’ results, even though said results would be totally meaningless. Bohannon writes:
"It’s called p-hacking—fiddling with your experimental design and data to push p [a measure of statistical significance] under 0.05—and it’s a big problem. Most scientists are honest and do it unconsciously. They get negative results, convince themselves they goofed, and repeat the experiment until it “works."
After writing up their results, the team sent out their manuscript to dozens of illegitimate science journals, many of which accepted the paper. After Bohannon agreed to pay 600 euros to the International Archives of Medicine, the study was published. His team then circulated a press release and promotional videos to different media outlets. The salacious study was covered in popular media around the world, but notably in lower-quality, higher-readership outlets like The Daily Mail, Shape, Men’s Health, Cosmopolitan, and many others.
As egregious as this example is, I still find it less insidious than the way food companies and marketing boards hide behind the perceived legitimacy of academia, whose funding-strapped researchers launder bad research questions and misleading data on behalf of industry. Some of those studies may be perfectly sound, some not—but it’s impossible to know when the funding source is at odds with any adverse findings.
Far from just a one-off study here or there like the chocolate study above, powerful food industries commission research on a sustained and widespread basis. According to the National Dairy Council’s own report, the NDC has “administered” nearly 100 nutrition and public health studies between 2014 and 2022 (so far) in conjunction with reputable academic institutions. These studies have titles like “Influence of Chocolate Milk on Intense Cycle Training” and “Effects of Milk Protein Concentrate on Blood Pressure, Inflammation, Muscle Composition, and Metabolic Health During Weight Loss in Overweight/Obese Adults.” Studies like these generate endless headlines in the media, percolating into our minds and influencing what we eat.
That said, it’s now more than just the tabloid rags and pop-science magazines spreading “fake news” about nutrition science. Social media platforms help spread false information and controversy like wildfire. (And let’s face it, diet might be one of the most controversial subjects to broach in any social context.) Worse, the ideological bubbles these platforms tend to foster have a way of distorting reality in the minds of millions, maybe even billions, of people. Fad diets become dedicated communities: “keto”, “paleo”, “carnivore”, “raw” vegan, and so on. When different factions clash, anger escalates, in turn garnering more clicks, more engagement, less humility and skepticism, and more ad revenue.
(It doesn’t help, either, that food companies curate their own social media personalities, using ironic humor and controversy to gain the public’s favor and interact directly with everyday users of the platforms.)
The toxicity of the nutrition science conversation is bad news for the fields of nutrition and public health altogether. When everyone believes him- or herself to be an expert—both despite and because of the industry-mediated confusion in real nutrition science—there can be no shared consensus around the facts and no progress made toward a healthier world. Much of the public disengages from high-quality science, preferring instead the false sense of certainty and connection within niche online communities. The only ones who gain from the current climate are the industries and companies at the root of the problem.
That may sound bleak, but we can begin to reverse this downward spiral by becoming more media-savvy, at least when it comes to nutrition science reporting. This goes hand in hand with science literacy, which we touched on in the previous blog post in this series.
So, how can we discern good reporting on nutrition science from bad? The first step may sound too obvious: don’t read just the headline. No matter how click-baity it is, the actual article is (hopefully) going to be more nuanced. Second, if the article doesn’t link to an actual scientific study, consider that article of very low credibility. If there are one or more studies linked, read them if they aren’t behind a paywall. Look at funders and the study authors’ affiliations. Association with the food industry isn’t necessarily a disqualifier, but it should raise your level of skepticism. Refer to the principles listed in our previous blog post to evaluate the quality of the science.
Third, any popular article making nutrition claims or referencing nutrition science should have quotes from the study authors as well as nutrition scientists not affiliated with the study. Good scientists temper their language and generally don’t frame their findings as 100% definitive. I feel more confident in the veracity of an article when there are quotes from experts and acknowledgements of the study’s limitations.
Fourth, if a popular article is focusing on claims or research that purports to “upend” scientific consensus, be highly skeptical. This is sometimes the case when articles talk about saturated fat or cholesterol. These articles will usually make a weakly-justified dismissal of the last seven decades of nutrition research on saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, red meat, or something along those lines. Even when they are penned by medical professionals, the claims in those types of articles are usually poorly substantiated or simply unexplained, speaking to the author’s lack of expertise in nutrition science specifically.
This is only a start, and it’s not a perfect antidote to the bigger issue of industry meddling in nutrition science. Perhaps it’s best to end on what we can all agree on: No matter what dietary pattern you follow, we all deserve access to the uncorrupted, un-sensationalized truth, as well as to the means required to eat a healthy, balanced diet.
Part III continues to dig even deeper into the Industry Playbook and what it means for our collective health, so stay tuned. In the meantime, if you have information, thoughts, questions, or research to share, please contact me at email@example.com
Madeline is the Food System and Nutrition Policy Analyst at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes.
You can reach her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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