by Marion Nestle
Aug 22 2012

Entertaining nutrition research: “nutrifluff”

I consider the results of studies showing remarkable health benefits attributed to single foods or single nutrients to be “nutrifluff”—fun, but not necessarily meaningful unless you are eating a healthy diet anyway.

Here are four recent examples:

Dark chocolate reduces heart disease risk: Everybody loves this one—an excuse to eat chocolate (but only the dark, bitter kind, alas).  This comes from a Cochrane meta-analysis of studies on the role of flavonols in blood pressure.  It concludes that chocolate eating is associated with a small reduction in blood pressure of 2 to 3 mm Hg—but only in short-term trials.  How many of the studies were sponsored by chocolate companies?  The report doesn’t say.

Apple peel extracts reduce blood pressure: Apples also have flavonols.  These were test-tube studies.  Note: Eating fruits and vegetables in general is associated with lower blood pressure.

Walnuts boost semen quality: Here’s a fun one.  Eat 75 grams of walnuts a day, and you improve your sperm vitality, motility, and morphology, at least if you are age 21 to 35 (and male).  This one was sponsored by the California Walnut Commission.  One report on this study has the best title ever: “Nuts for your nuts.”

Goji berries promote immune function in the elderly: This one, done by researchers working for Nestlé  (no relation), tested daily supplements of “lacto-wolfberry” on immune responses to influenza vaccine.  I’m assuming Nestlé must be planning to market this supplement.

What does all this tell us?  These kinds of studies confirm that eating fruits and vegetables is good for health (I think we might have known that already).

But the main (perhaps only) reason for doing such studies is for marketing purposes, which is why food companies sponsor them.

  • Joan Gussow had some wise words for us about it:

    People don’t love nutrients. Nobody says: “I love vitamin C.” But they do say: “I love a fresh orange.” People have feelings about food. They don’t have any feelings about nutrients.

    We’d all be wise to by-pass on the “study of the day” … most of them, anyway.

    Ken Leebow
    101 Incredible Diet, Health, and Lifestyle Tips

  • Acton

    “….only the dark, bitter kind, alas”?

    Sugar ruins the flavor of chocolate, as does milk. I always find it strange that people want to sweeten up what is one of the greatest flavors on the planet.

    (Then again, I’m the guy who wishes they’d make actual sugar-free soda. Not with an artificial sweetener, but with none at all, so I could taste the strong, bitter flavors of cola or root beer.)

  • One of my favorites is flax seeds. If they’re added to anything packaged, the price seems to skyrocket. This added cost despite the fact that in their whole form won’t be of much use to the body, and if they’re ground, baked, packaged and sitting on a shelf for week…probably rancid, too.

  • renita

    acton, I love a good dark chocolate, but in my opinion it needs a bit of sugar (say, 80-85% cacao) just to bring the notes out and add some balance.

    I would like to see more truly sugar-free foods, though, as opposed to “fake sugar” added.

  • Percy

    Here’s another approach to nutrifluff: Kellogg’s reformulation of its only isocaloric diet-friendly cereal as new and improved, when they just added 250% more sugar and reduced fiber by 50%:

  • pawpaw

    But such studies can inform a healthy diet, and give additional reasons to choose whole foods, new foods or more of them. At my farm market stand, I want variety and novelty in my repertoire to educate my customers.

    Young males may feel invincible and therefore ignore walnuts for cardiovascular health. But entice them with sperm quality, and you get their attention. And what does it now mean if a woman offers you walnuts?

    Also, I’m glad to know that theobromine, rich in dark chocolate, is an equal to greater cough suppressant than codeine. Even if Mars or other candy companies funded the initial studies, additional independent ones have been done. Would rather food be my medicine than big pharma.

    Pilot studies, often funded, at least in part, by industry, can generate the initial data for much larger and more rigorous studies. I’d like to think that my research results over the years were not swayed by the varied sources of funding. Peer reviewed studies help with this. Oversimplified, needlessly provocative headlines don’t.

  • SAO

    Most men aged 21 to 35 would prefer lower sperm vitality, so I don’t see how this sells walnuts.

    In fact, in the course of their lives, men (and women) generally want to be at the peak of fertility only very briefly and the rest of the time actively work to prevent conception.

  • Jeff

    Claiming that marketing is the sole reason for nutrition studies ignores a couple of things:

    1. Only drugs are allowed to make health claims. Any product, food or otherwise, which tries to make a health claim would be labeled a “drug” by the FDA. It would then be required to go through the hugely expensive drug-approval process. Consider what happened to Pom Wonderful, or to General Mills’ attempt to make health claims for Cheerios:

    2. Nutrition research is a fast-growing field. Most of it is conducted by Institutions not connected to food companies, like this review of Curcumin’s health benefits:

    Then there’s research conducted by the U.S. Government. The Department of Agriculture has sponsored many nutrition studies:

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  • Ida Erasmus

    Reading a magazine the other day and realize it is only “vitamin and mineral supplement” Companies that got money to advertise these days ……. claiming all sorts of empty promises!
    Everyones have a study under the arm for so called “back up evidence”!
    Marion Nestle you have my full support (“Nutrifluff”) thank goodness your surname has “no relation”!

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