The failures of nutrition science

It’s no wonder we’re all confused when it comes to nutrition science, said Mark Hyman, MD, director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, at the 2019 Integrative Healthcare Symposium in New York City.

When Hyman began looking closely at nutrition science and research, he immediately found significant bias and corruption across the board. Coco-Cola funds studies on the health of soft drinks. The sugar industry sponsors studies that find no harm in artificial sweeteners. The diary industry pays for research that concludes milk is an essential part of a healthy diet. The food industry is constantly influencing the opinion in their favor, says Hyman.

And it’s not just the food industries themselves that corrupt nutrition science. Professional associations that often make dietary recommendations as it relates to disease, such as the American Diabetes Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association, are funded by brands like Kraft, Tyson, General Mills, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, according to Hyman.

Further, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics controversially partner with companies like PepsiCo and Kellogg’s, and even recommend Kraft American Singles as a “Kids Eat Right” recommended product, says Hyman. The American Society for Nutrition’s “Smart Choices” program features products like Foot Loops cereal, and tout McDonald’s and Monsanto as corporate partners. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also partners with Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, and Cargill.

According to a 2019 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, for every 10 percent increase in ultra-processed food consumption, there is a 14 percent increase in all cause mortality. So, it’s a huge problem that companies producing such products are influencing key players in nutrition science and education, according to Hyman.

There are a few key problems with current nutrition science, Hyman said, including:

  • Food industry influence
  • Co-opted professional societies
  • Industry front groups and corporate sponsors
  • Media influence

When it comes to nutrition research, there are also inherent challenges, Hyman said. Observational studies and food frequency questionnaires offer incomplete and, often, incorrect information. Existing studies are mostly non-randomized designs, Hymans said, with impossible-to-control confounding, and many low-quality, small trials. The design of the study and the focus on single ingredients versus whole foods also matters, Hyman said.

But how do practitioners sift through the bias and corruption and find the valid information that they can use to help govern their dietary recommendations to patients? Here are some considerations when reviewing a study:

  • Confounding factors
  • Time period of the study
  • Author bias
  • Publication bias
  • Funding bias
  • Expense of research and limitations of funding
  • Limited data sharing

“Practitioners need to learn to read between the lines,” Hyman said. “We can’t focus solely on the science, but who’s funding the science or speaking on it.”