The Times was not the only one to make these requests. U.S. Right to Know, a group devoted to investigating Big Food and its front groups had already done so. U.S. Right to Know is funded primarily by the Organic Consumers Association, a national grassroots network advocating for organics, sustainability, and food safety—but against GMOs.
U.S. Right to Know rightfully takes credit for establishing the basis of the Times’ story. It sent open-records requests to scientists working for public institutions who seemed likely to have financial ties to Monsanto. Bingo. Some of the e-mails revealed such ties.*
While these debates are raging, here is one aspect of this story that the New York Times did not tell.
Earlier this month, Paul Thacker and my NYU colleague Charles Seife, wrote a piece for PLoS [Public Library of Science] Blogs arguing that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests “for personal correspondence are not just appropriate, but crucial to ensuring transparency.” They argue that the benefits of transparency outweigh the costs.
But transparency laws remain a fundamental tool for monitoring possible scientific misbehavior. And it would be a mistake to believe that scientists should not be subject to a high level of outside scrutiny. So long as scientists receive government money, they are subject to government oversight; so long as their work affects the public, journalists and other watchdogs are simply doing their jobs when they seek out possible misconduct and questionable practices that could threaten the public interest.
Thacker and Seife explain:
Last week, Nature reported that the University of Florida had provided them with emails that U.S. Right to Know had FOIA’d on one of their researchers…the [Nature] story noted that the researcher has received money from Monsanto to fund expenses incurred while giving educational talks on GMOs. The article also noted that the PR Firm Ketchum had provided the scientist with canned answers to respond to GMO critics, although it is unclear if he used them [the Times story says he did but now regrets it].
The article does not report that the scientist has repeatedly denied having a financial relationship with Monsanto. The article also does not report on an email titled “CONFIDENTIAL: Coalition Update” from the researcher to Monsanto in which the scientist advised Monsanto on ways to defeat a political campaign in California to require labeling of GMO products.
If the public pays your salary, citizens have the right — within limits — to see what you’re doing. That’s the principle at the core of the federal Freedom of Information Act and of the many similar state freedom of information laws… “snooping” on scientists’ inboxes by journalists, watchdogs and government officials has revealed significant problems that would never have come to light via other means.
Bottom line: Because industry-funded science and scientists almost invariably provide data and testimony that favors the sponsors interests, the press and public need to know about sponsorship.
One more comment: A substantial body of literature exists on industry sponsorship of science, particularly on the effects of pharmaceutical industry funding of medical professionals. Conflicts-of-interest researchers conclude that such conflicts are generally unconscious, unintentional, and unrecognized by participants. The remedy is increased government spending for research, an unlikely possibility these days. This means journalists will be kept busy exposing the many problems that arise when scientists take industry funding.
Civil Eats: Your next book, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning), documents the history of how this sugary beverage gave rise to some of our most powerful corporations and has lately become Public Enemy Number One in the war on obesity.
With sales on the decline, the New York Times recently reported that Coca-Cola is pouring millions of dollars into a ‘science-based’ campaign to convince the public that the secret to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is not avoiding excess calories, but getting more exercise. What’s the science on more exercise versus fewer calories?
Marion Nestle: When it comes to studies about the health effects of sugary drinks, the science, alas, depends on who pays for it. Studies paid for by government or private health foundations show that if you want to prevent obesity, [a combination of] eating less and moving more works every time.
You can lose weight by eating less on its own. But you will have a much harder time doing that by increasing physical activity. This is because it takes lots of effort to compensate for excess calories. Eat two little Oreo cookies—100 calories—and you have to walk a mile to work them off. Drink a 20-ounce soda and you need to cover nearly three miles. This was the point of the New York City health department’s subway current poster campaign, which shows that you need to walk from Union Square in Manhattan to downtown Brooklyn to burn off 275 calories.
The soda industry would love you to believe that the principal cause of obesity is lack of physical activity, and they put tons of money into research to discourage other ideas. They much prefer you to believe that all of their products can be part of an active, healthy lifestyle that includes balanced diets, proper hydration, and regular physical activity. I call the idea the “physical activity diversion.” It deflects attention from what really counts in obesity prevention: not eating huge amounts of junk foods, snack foods, and sodas.
Mind you, I’m greatly in favor of physical activity for its many benefits: physiological, social, psychological, and health. But there is a good reason for the outraged reaction to Coca-Cola’s video seemingly suggesting that all you have to do to burn off the 140 “happy calories” in a 12-ounce soft drink is to laugh out loud for 75 seconds. This is so far from the reality of calorie balance that several countries actually banned the commercial [in 2013].
Soda companies promote the primacy of physical activity in other clever ways. The Coca-Cola Foundation says that about one-third of its philanthropic contributions go to organizations working to counter obesity, especially through promotion of physical activity.
Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo invest heavily in sponsorship of international sports teams. They put fortunes into recruiting sports celebrities as spokespersons. These investments accomplish two purposes: they influence fans to buy the products and shift the focus to physical activity. Obesity, these imply, is about what you do, not what you eat or drink. Public health advocates complain about how frequently young people—especially those of color or in low-income families—are exposed to advertising by professional athletes. The sponsored programs and celebrities never suggest that drinking less soda might be a useful health-promotion strategy.
As a nutritionist and co-author of a book titled Why Calories Count, I thoroughly agree that balance, variety, and moderation are fundamental principles of healthful diets, and that weight gain is a result of calorie imbalance.
But soda companies distort these principles to distract from their marketing of sugary drinks and how overconsumption of these drinks overrides normal physiological controls of hunger and satiety. Independently funded research makes it abundantly clear that avoiding sodas is one of the best things you can do for your health.
References: I am grateful to Richard Cooper for forwarding his paper on the relative contributions to obesity of diet and exercise. From his review of the literature, you must reduce calories to lose weight.
He also pointed me to rebuttals by Blair and Hill, the investigators featured in the New York Times article cited above.
Conflict of interest: J.H. receives research grants from the American Beverage Association and serves on advisory boards for McDonalds, General Mills and McCormicks. J.P. receives research funding from the American Beverage Association.
Despite my long interest in and dubious opinion about the benefits of Golden Rice (genetically modified to contain the beta-carotene precursor of vitamin A), I somehow completely missed the huge and highly embarrassing uproar over a study demonstrating the effectiveness of this rice in raising vitamin A levels in young children.
This particular uproar began with publication of the study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2012. Last week the journal announced that it has retracted the study—on ethical, not scientific, grounds.
To explain: Dr. Guangwen Tang, a long-time researcher at Tufts University, and her colleagues at Tufts, in China, and at Baylor and the NIH, compared the effectiveness of vitamin A capsules, Golden Rice, and spinach in raising vitamin A levels in the blood of Chinese schoolchildren. They reported that Golden Rice proved just as effective as capsules, and somewhat better than spinach, in inducing higher vitamin A levels, just as it is supposed to do.
Golden Rice, of course, is the poster child for the benefits of GMOs, extolled by many as the solution to the developing world’s high prevalence of vitamin A deficiency (I’m dubious because I view vitamin A deficiency as a social problem requiring policy and cultural shifts).
none of the children, their parents or school teachers was aware that Golden Rice was involved, according to a 45-minute investigative news programme broadcast on 8 December on CCTV, China’s state television channel. The informed-consent form said that the rice contained β-carotene, but not that it was genetically modified or that it was Golden Rice. Nor did it highlight uncertainty around any potential risks of ingesting such rice…Moreover, Wang didn’t apply for ethical evaluation of the trial, instead fabricating the approval documents, according to CDC. And Tang brought Golden Rice from the United States to China illegally, without due declaration to the relevant Chinese authorities, it said.
According to a report on NPR, Tufts University did a year-long investigation and agreed that ethical standards had been violated:
the study was not “conducted in full compliance with … policy or federal regulations”… the researchers did not adequately explain the nature of golden rice and made some changes in the study without getting approval from the committee at Tufts that is supposed to review all research involving human subjects. Guangwen Tang will be banned from conducting research on human subjects for two years. For two years after that, any research that she conducts will be under the direct supervision of another investigator.
A report on the case in ScienceInsider explains the ethical problem raised by the study’s informed consent form :
U.S. guidelines stipulate that such forms use plain language understandable to lay people, and the IRB [the Tufts Institutional Review Board] agreed to let Tang say that “Golden Rice is a new rice which makes beta-carotene,” without using the loaded words “genetically modified.” (The consent form for a very similar study by Tang among adults in Boston, published in 2009, didn’t use that term either.) Given the sensitivities over transgenic food, which existed in China as well, that was the wrong decision, according to the external panel.
ASN twice asked Tang and her six co-authors to withdraw the paper voluntarily, which they declined to do. The society recently decided to retract the paper on its own…but it has agreed to a 90-day stay after Tang filed her lawsuit, to see if the matter can be settled out of court.
But the court ruled in favor of ASN. Hence, the retraction. ASN issued a press release:
In a ruling by the Massachusetts Superior Court, Judge Salinger…cleared the way for the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) to retract the article “β-Carotene in Golden Rice is as good as β-carotene in oil at providing vitamin A to children”…ASN is very pleased that the Massachusetts courts have upheld the organization’s First Amendment rights and have allowed ASN to move forward with the retraction of the article.
The authors are unable to provide sufficient evidence that the study had been reviewed and approved by a local ethics committee in China in a manner fully consistent with NIH guidelines….
The authors are unable to substantiate through documentary evidence that all parents or children involved in the study were provided with the full consent form for the study.
Specific eligibility issues were identified in regard to 2 subjects in the study.
Last week, Retraction Watch published a lengthy summary of this case that includes a long statement from Tufts University:
No questions were raised about the integrity of the study data, accuracy of the research results or safety of the research subjects…Tufts University has always been and remains deeply committed to the highest ethical and scientific standards in research. In September 2012, w …convened an external review committee to interview those involved and to review documentation of the study…There was no evidence found of falsification or fabrication of the data that underlie the study’s primary findings. Those reviews did, however, determine that the research had not been conducted in full compliance with Tufts research policies and federal research regulations.
The retraction is a huge embarrassment, not only for the researchers involved but also for Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts’ Institutional Review Board, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and the American Society for Clinical Nutrition.
The study was funded by NIH, USDA, as well as a program in China. NIH takes research ethics very seriously and expects the researchers it funds to adhere to the highest possible standards for research on human subjects. Because the study did not follow standard ethical guidelines, especially with regard to research on children, Tufts had no choice but to investigate and impose sanctions, and the journal had no choice but to retract the paper.
This case reinforces my views about GMOs in general and Golden Rice in particular.
The controversies are not (or not usually) about the science. They are very much about ethics and other questions of values.
Use and enjoy the list of media resources—links to videos, audios, songs, movies, infographics, commercials—keyed to illustrate the text.
Answers the question, how did what is essentially flavored sugar-water come to mean so much and to have such devastating health and food policy consequences?
Is the first to focus on the history, politics, nutrition, and health of soda, integrating public health science with historical and cultural research
Helps readers understand how we created this food system, what its problems are, and what we can do to fix these problems
Is illustrated with 70 figures and 50 tables
Comes with a Foreword by Mark Bittman, food journalist and columnist for The New York Times
Comes with an Afterword by Dr. Neal Baer, pediatrician and television writer and producer
Here are the book’s blurbs:
“The soda industry is a powerful economic operator. Economic power readily translates into political power. Soda Politics is exactly the kind of carefully-researched investigative reporting needed to open the eyes of the public and parliamentarians to the health hazards of what is, as the author rightly notes, essentially liquid candy in a bottle.” –Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organization
“No book in history has so completely laid bare the soda scourge that touches every corner of the world. Marion Nestle shows how this happened, its impact on human health and well-being, who the players are, and, most importantly, what might be done. This is the right book at the right time.” –Dr. Kelly Brownell, Dean, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University
“Marion Nestle is one of the greatest muckrakers of our time, and what she does is vitally important-for our health, our environment, and for future generations. Here, she wages war against the soda titans with such piercing clarity and so many irrefutable truths that all other arguments crumble.” –Alice Waters, Founder and Proprietor of Chez Panisse
“Comprehensive and well-written, this book will help frame a thoughtful public policy debate about nutrition and the societal impacts and costs of obesity.” –Ann M. Veneman, Former US Secretary of Agriculture and Former Executive Director of UNICEF
“What happens when the food industry’s most insightful critic turns her sights on soda? This razor-sharp, fun to read, plan-of-battle for one of the greatest public health fights of our time. Big soda may have all the money, but those who would enter this fray, as we all should, now have their champion.” –Michael Moss, Author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
“For decades, soda companies have amassed fortunes off drinks that are making us sick. It took someone like Marion Nestle to cut through the spin and uncover the high cost of cheap sodas.” –Robert Kenner, Director/Producer, Food Inc. and Merchants of Doubt
“Long recognized as an important and informed voice in our national and international discussions on nutrition and health, Marion Nestle has written another book that will keep us talking. With an impressive combination of scholarship and advocacy, Dr Nestle takes an unflinching look at the soda industry, its products and the impact on health. Soda Politics deserves the attention of the public and policy makers, and should make us all think more carefully about choices we can make to improve health and well-being.”–Margaret Hamburg, M.D., Former Commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Here’s the first review from the August 2015 Library Journal:
Nestle (nutrition, New York Univ.) once again exposes the dark side of the food business. As in her 2007 Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, the author examines the soft drink industry, demonstrating how products that are basically flavored water with added sugar contribute to obesity, type-2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. She discusses the composition and production of soda, the adverse effects of excess sugar consumption, and product marketing. The companies’ targeting of children, low-income, and minority communities; lobbying of Congress to prevent legislation that would impact profits; funding of research to produce results that obscure the facts about soda; and donations to health organizations and charities in order to be portrayed as socially responsible corporations make it difficult for citizens to act. Nestle reveals what can be done and how to do it, providing relevant data, analyzing that information, and illustrating its difficulties. She then advocates for smaller portions, taxing sugary drinks, and excluding soda from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and provides examples of successful campaigns, a list of groups advocating for healthy beverage choices, and extensive notes. VERDICT An outstanding manual for health educators, activists, and anyone seeking information about the soda industry and its impact on health.— Barbara Bibel, formerly Oakland P.L.
For me, the single most stunning and appalling revelation comes in the section about environmental impact and industry responses to it. It is that between 340 and 620 litres of water are used for every litre of soft drink produced, about 20% of that related to packaging. Despite such disturbing revelations,Soda Politics is not discouraging…Throughout the book, Nestle provides tactics for practical, local advocacy, such as working with school wellness committees and engaging local policymakers. And since 2002, the proportion of US citizens who say that they avoid soft drinks has risen by 20%, reaching nearly two-thirds of the population…For public health to prevail over soda politics as usual, we have miles to go. This book is the richly drawn map of how to get there, from here.
The standard operating practices of companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo demand the same level of scrutiny as cigarette companies, and for many of the same reasons, argues Marion Nestle in the introduction of her new book, Soda Politics. What follows is a thorough and unflinching look at the soft-drink industry’s role in promoting the consumption of sugary drinks despite growing evidence that they are detrimental to our health. The book begins with a basic primer of the range of health problems that have been linked to soda consumption, from tooth decay to obesity and diabetes, hitting its stride with an eviscerating assessment of the industry’s marketing and advocacy practices.
For those readers who share Nestle’s critical perspective on the food industry, it is obvious that this book would be informative. But here is the greater surprise: this solid book is by far the best source on this topic for any reader, with any perspective on economics or politics. If I worked for a trade association, or an industry front group, or an esteemed professional association that relies on soda industry funding, or the House Agriculture Committee, or a sugar manufacturer, or a high-powered corporate law firm, I might store this book in my desk drawer rather than my book shelf … yet I would read it word for word.
In Soda Politics (OUP, £19.90), Dr Marion Nestle does us all a great service by spelling out clearly and authoritatively the dreadful price we are paying for guzzling gallons of sugared water – Coke and Pepsi by any other name. Big Soda, as Dr Nestle calls the billion-dollar corporate giants behind this poison, know exactly how bad their products are for us but are so powerful no one takes them on. Rise up and rebel, Nestlé urges.
Nestle writes like an investigator hunting every possible scrap of damning material for a prosecutorial brief, which will no doubt make her book an excellent resource for activists and reformers seeking remedies in Washington, in the courts, and, perhaps, in the aisles of the local supermarket.
Fortunately, so does Marion Nestle. The nutrition professor, advocate and investigator best known for “Food Politics” profiles the soft drink industry in her expansive, superbly researched new book, “Soda Politics: Taking On Big Soda (and Winning).” It isn’t so much a narrative as a well-organized barrage of facts, some eye-popping (the world’s soda companies produce nearly two trillion 12-ounce servings annually), others banally incriminating. They come off the page like jabs in a sustained pummeling lasting more than 400 pages. Even if Nestle is only half right, it’s still a total knockout.
Nestle is foremost an educator and an activist, and Soda Politics is worth its price alone for the chapters on advocacy, from recruiting public health leaders and working from within to protecting public water resources…In other words, we can change things, one Big Gulp at a time.
The new Nature study marks a significant advance because it brings together two separate areas of research—the role of sweeteners in raising blood sugar levels, and the complex workings of the vast colonies of bacteria that inhabit the gut. Individuals can have differing bacterial colonies in their gut, meaning people respond differently to what they consume.
The study involved several experiments. These found:
Mice fed saccharin, sucralose, or aspartame had significantly higher blood-glucose levels than mice whose diet included sugar, or just water.
Mice with sterilized digestive tracts, who were given bacterial transplants from artificial-sweetener-fed mice, displayed higher blood sugar levels than those receiving bacterial transplants from sugar-fed mice.
People who typically use artificial sweeteners have different kinds of bacteria in their intestines than those who do not. They also are more glucose intolerant.
Seven volunteers fed artificial sweeteners for four days displayed higher blood-sugar levels as well as altered populations of bacteria in their gut.
The Wall Street Journal quotes the Calorie Control Council (the trade association of makers of artificial sweeteners). The CCC said:
The results from the mouse experiments may not apply to humans, while the human experiments had a small sample size. It said further research was needed.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm for artificial sweeteners, I think the Calorie Control Council has a point.
At present, the scientists cannot explain how the sweeteners affect the bacteria or why the three different molecules of saccharin, aspartame and sucralose result in similar changes in the glucose metabolism.
Chang ends with this:
Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and immunology at the Harvard School of Public Health who did not take part in the study, called it interesting but far from conclusive and added that given the number of participants, “I think the validity of the human study is questionable.”
Here’s why I’m not fond of artificial sweeteners:
They taste bad (to me)
They have no demonstrated effectiveness in helping people lose or maintain weight.
They are artificial, and violate my rule to “never eat anything artificial.”
Do they mess up the microbiome and cause glucose intolerance, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome?
That would be fascinating, but I’m reserving judgment pending further research.
In the meantime, I’ll take sugar—in moderation, of course.
The biggest long-term challenge facing the U.S. food industry is that taste preferences are changing. This is most apparent among highly urbane and educated consumers, where the arbitrary boundaries of “too sweet” and “too fatty” are altering in ways inimical to the core food science paradigm of the U.S. food and beverage industry.
The U.S. food industry routinely serves crude flavor profiles associated with the unsophisticated farm cuisine of Middle America: heavy on salt, dairy and animal fat and, in the past half century, sugar…For years, there was growing demand for these flavors in all sorts of foods, primarily because U.S. preferences were not changing.
Now they are. The increasing multiculturalism of the U.S. population plus the globally well-traveled, savvy upper-middle class have created a large population of consumers intentionally seeking complex flavor profiles imported from much more sophisticated food cultures.
3. Not enough corporate social responsibility: Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign achieved two coups in the last week or so. First General Mills and now Kellogg have signed on to its Climate Declaration which commits them to reducing greenhouse gases produced in their processing chains. Oxfam organized more than 200,000 signatures on a petition—and produced a report, Standing on the Sidelines—to induce these companies to pay more attention to their effects on climate change.
Today, Michael Goran and his colleagues published an NIH-funded study demonstrating that the proportion of fructose in products made with high fructose corn syrup is often higher than 55%—as much as 60% to 67%.
This matters because of concerns that high intake of fructose might induce insulin resistance and other metabolic problems.
Today also, a different group of investigators published a study saying just the opposite. Fructose in products, it says, is in close agreement with the amount expected.
More responses to questions that came in last week:
Q3. Have you seen Dannon’s new campaign for their Greek yogurt? I’m a nutritionist and received a huge package of collateral promotion material they wanted me to distribute. The tagline for the product is, “Too delicious to be nutritious.” Are they kidding? They want a nutritionist to ratify the idea that healthy food is expected not to be good tasting?
A. I’m so with you on this one. Of course healthy foods can be delicious and should be, every time. Yogurt, especially the Greek kind, is a hot-selling product these days. The advertising agency gets a hand slap for this one. Of course Dannon will argue that the advertising worked. Ink is ink and you and I are writing about it.
A. Sure. I already did, in comments posted last January. The controversy centers on disputes over the interpretation of research showing little effect of overweight on mortality except for the extremely obese. The article in Nature discussing the controversy does an excellent job of explaining the inevitable uncertainties in nutrition research and the need to leave wiggle room—in case the science changes—whenever discussing new studies.