by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Conflicts-of-interest

Aug 9 2021

Industry-sponsored study of the week: Animal foods vs. plant-based substitutes

Thanks to Frank Lindner for sending this study.  He is a campaigner for foodwatch Nederland, which among other campaigns, runs Stop the sale of science for better transparency in science.

He says this Tweet made him curious:

He followed up and found the study: The place of animal products in a sustainable diet.  Authors: Stephen Peters, Jolande Valkenburg, Thom Huppertz, Luuk Blom, Lionel van Est. Norwegian Journal of Nutrition, Nr. 2 – June 2021.

The study begins with this premise:

Replacing animal-based foods with plant-based foods does not necessarily lower the diets [sic] carbon footprint.

Why?

In an average Dutch person’s diet, animal products are an important source of protein, minerals and vitamins…Animal products contribute significantly to the intake of important nutrients, such as high-quality protein, vitamins A, B2 and B12, calcium, magnesium, zinc and (in the case of meat) heme iron. These nutrients are not naturally, or often, found in plant products. Omitting animal products from the diet therefore can have major consequences for nutrient intake.

Lindner wrote that “I read the article and my jaw fell wide open at the very end….”

Funding: The research has been sponsored by the Dutch Dairy Association.

Conflicts of interest: Dr. Peters is a employed by the Dutch Dairy Association as manager of dairy health and sustainability. Dr. Huppertz is employed by FrieslandCampina, The Netherlands and is a professor of Dairy Science at Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands, Distinguished Visiting Professor at Victoria University, Australia and Editor-in-Chief of International Dairy Journal. Dr. Bloom and Dr. van Est are the founders of Nutrisoft. A (commercial) company that combines the knowledge of nutrition and ICT.

Comment: FrieslandCampina is a large dairy cooperative operating in 38 countries and employing nearly 24,000 people.   It sponsors research at Wageningen University.

Milk and dairy may be at the heart of what we do, but at FrieslandCampina, we make more than just cheese and yogurt. We also produce dairy nutrition for specific groups of consumers, such as toddlers or adults with specific requirements.

Lindner was surprised by the disclosures and said “At least they are open and honest about it (they don’t even bother to hide it).”  He should not be surprised.  Industry-funded studies almost always produce results favorable to the sponsors’ interests.  That is one reason why journals require authors to disclose financial relationships with sponsors.

Here, the interests are obvious.  It is very much in the economic interests of dairy companies to demonstrate the nutritional superiority of dairy products over plant-based alternatives.

Reference: For a summary of research on the “funding effect”—the observations that research sponsored by food companies almost invariably produces results favorable to the sponsor’s interests and that recipients of industry funding typically did not intend to be influenced and do not recognize the influence—see my book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.

Jul 19 2021

Plant-based meat vs real meat: a nutritional toss-up—or not?

So many readers have asked me to comment on the recent study comparing the nutrient content of meat versus plant-based alternatives that I thought I better get to it.

For example, Andrew Wilder of eatingrules.com writes:

They conclude that there are nutritional differences…My first thought was “Duh!”… so I started wondering why they would even do this study…Surprise surprise, two of the authors have connections to the beef industry.  I also thought it was interesting that in the Abstract, they say “This has raised questions of whether plant‑based meat alternatives represent proper nutritional replacements to animal meat.” So they’re framing everything with the baseline that animal meat is “proper nutrition” which seems like a pretty obvious bias right out of the gate…

Indeed it does.  But the study is a bit more complicated than that, and definitely worth a look.

The study: A metabolomics comparison of plant‑based meat and grass‑fed meat indicates large nutritional differences despite comparable Nutrition Facts panels. Stephan van Vliet, James R. Bain Michael J. Muehlbauer, Frederick D. Provenza, Scott L. Kronberg, Carl F. Pieper & Kim M. Huffman. Nature Scientific Reports (2021) 11:13828.

The research question: Do plant‑based meat alternatives represent proper nutritional replacements to animal meat?

The method: The study compared 190 metabolites (chemical compounds capable of being used by the body) in meat and plant-based alternatives.

Result: Big differences.

Conclusion:  “In conclusion, metabolomics revealed that abundance of 171 out of 190 profiled metabolites differed between beef and a commercially-available plant-based meat alternative, despite comparable Nutrition Facts panels. Amongst identified metabolites were various nutrients (amino acids, phenols, vitamins, unsaturated fatty acids, and dipeptides) with potentially important physiological, anti-inflammatory, and/or immunomodulatory roles—many of which remained absent in the plant-based meat alternative when compared to beef and vice versa. Our data indicates that these products should not be viewed as nutritionally interchangeable, but could be viewed as complementary in terms of provided nutrients. It cannot be determined from our data if either source is healthier to consume [my emphasis].”

Competing interests: “S.V.V. reports a grant from the North Dakota Beef Association to study the impact of diet quality on the relationship between red meat and human health. S.V.V reports additional grant support from USDA-NIFA-SARE (LS21-357), the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture, and the Dixon Foundation for projects that link agricultural production systems to the nutritional/metabolite composition of foods and human health. S.V.V also reports having received honoria [sic] for talks linking food production systems to human health, which was used to support scientific research. F.D.P. reports receiving honoraria for his talks about behavior-based management of livestock. J.R.B., M.J.M., S.L.K., C.F.P., and K.M.H report no conflicts. S.V.V., J.R.B., M.J.M., F.D.P., S.L.K., and C.F.P. consume omnivorous diets; K.M.H. consumes a vegetarian diet.”

Comment: To the question of nutritional differences, duh, indeed.  Why would anyone not expect nutritional differences?  From the abstract and conclusion, the study appears to suggest that meat is nutritionally better.

But then, the authors throw in those hedge-betting comments.

Really?   If they can’t figure out which is better, why do this study?

Andrew Wilder’s analysis and mine too: the underlying purpose of this study is to demonstrate the nutritional superiority of meat and the lack of equivalence of plant-based substitutes.

As for the conflicted interests: My first reaction to seeing this study was to ask: “Who paid for this?”

But the reported conflicts are somewhat confusing.  The lead author has meat-industry funding to do studies of this type.  But most of the other authors report no conflicts, and one is a vegetarian.

Maybe the vegetarian was responsible for the hedging comments?

Jul 14 2021

The UN Summit on Food Systems 2: The Critique

Yesterday, I posted information about the forthcoming UN Summit on Food Systems (UNFSS) and its Pre-Summit.  The Summit has been heavily criticized on the grounds that it:

  • Sets agenda themes determined by corporate entities such as The World Economic Forum and the Gates Foundation.
  • Favors corporate technological solutions to food system problems.
  • Ignores agroecology, organic farming, and indigenous knowledge.
  • Excludes meaningful representation from people most affected by food system transformation.
  • Promotes corporate control of food systems.
  • Ignores the conflicted interests of its organizers.
  • Is fundamentally undemocratic.

These criticisms are so severe that The Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism for Relations with the UN (CSM) is organizing counter events July 25 to July 27.

Much has been written to document such concerns.

Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples Mechanism, North America: UN Food System Summit “Dialogue” events spark renewed concerns of corporate capture in North American food system and rural economies globally

In March 2020, 550 civil society organizations sent an open letter to the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General condemning the involvement of the World Economic Forum in the UNFSS, the appointment of Ms. Agnes Kalibata as UNFSS Special Envoy due to her links to corporate agribusiness, the failure of the UNFSS to elevate the primacy and indivisibility of human rights frameworks as foundational to the governance of food systems, and the necessity of civil society organizations to have an autonomous, self-organized, and equal ‘seat at the table.’ These concerns have not been addressed despite numerous CSM interactions with UNFSS organizers.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES): An IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] for Food?”  How the UN Food Systems Summit is being used to advance a problematic new science-policy agenda.

Behind what sounds like a technocratic question is in fact a high-stakes battle over different visions of what constitutes legitimate science and relevant knowledge for food systems. This, in turn, is part of a broader battle over what food systems should look like and who should govern them.

Matthew CanfieldMolly D. Anderson and Philip McMichael.  UN Food Systems Summit 2021: Dismantling Democracy and Resetting Corporate Control of Food Systems.  Front. Sustain. Food Syst., 13 April 2021. [Note: this paper has an especially useful historical account of attempts to establish global food system governance]

Although few people will dispute that global food systems need transformation, it has become clear that the Summit is instead an effort by a powerful alliance of multinational corporations, philanthropies, and export-oriented countries to subvert multilateral institutions of food governance and capture the global narrative of “food systems transformation”…It elaborates how the current structure and forms of participant recruitment and public engagement lack basic transparency and accountability, fail to address significant conflicts of interest, and ignore human rights.

Independent scientists:  Open letter to policy makers: No new science-policy interface for food systems.

We call on governments and policymakers to…Support participatory processes that actively and meaningfully include plural perspectives and voices in food system governance. Farmers and other citizens need inclusive, participatory, and safe spaces within the CFS-HLPE process to co-create the knowledge necessary to govern food systems at global, national and local levels.

Maywa Montenegro, Matthew Canfield, and Alastair IlesWeaponizing Science in Global Food Policy.

Nobody disputes the need for urgent action to transform the food system. But the UNFSS has been criticized by human rights experts for its top-down and non-transparent organization. Indigenous peoples, peasants, and civil society groups around the world know their hard-won rights are under attack. Many are protesting the summit’s legitimacy and organizing counter-mobilizations.

Scientists are also contesting a summit because of its selective embrace of science, as seen in a boycott letter signed by nearly 300 academics, from Brazil to Italy to Japan.

Through the Summit, “science” has been weaponized by powerful actors not only to promote a technology-driven approach to food systems, but also to fragment global food security governance and create institutions more amenable to the demands of agribusiness.

ScientistsAn open letter from scientists calling for a boycott of the 2021 Food Systems Summit.

Some critics of the UNFSS have suggested ways that the process could become less problematic: (1) it could incorporate a human rights framing into all of its “action tracks”; (2) it could create an action track led by the CSM on the corporate capture of food systems; and (3) it could designate the UN Committee on World Food Security as the institutional home to implement recommendations coming out of the summit.

Nisbett N, et al.  Equity and expertise in the UN Food Systems Summit.  BMJ Global Health. 2021;6:e006569.

…time is not late to take action in rebalancing powers and enabling a greater diversity of knowledge, not simply among a multiplicity of voices in multiple public forums, but explicitly engaged at the summit’s top table of expertise and summit leadership. It is also not late to adopt mechanisms that limit the engagement of those actors whose primary interests have driven our food systems to
become unhealthy, unsustainable and inequitable, so the voices of the people can be clearly heard..

An alternative: The Global People’s Summit on Food Systems

The People’s Summit is composed primarily of movements of landless peasants, agricultural workers, fisherfolk, indigenous people, rural women, and youth—or small food producers who produce 70% of the world’s food, yet remain among the world’s poorest and food insecure.  “The issue of landlessness and land grabbing is not on the agenda of the UNFSS.  Nowhere in its so-called Action Tracks do discussions highlight critical trends such as on land concentration and reconcentration in the hands of big agribusiness firms and their network of local landlords and compradors, nor on the massive displacement of rural communities to give way to big private investments and large development projects,” said Chennaiah Poguri, chairperson of the Asian Peasant Coalition (APC).

Additions

 

Jun 28 2021

Industry-funded study of the week: Almonds

By this time, a great many research studies have associated eating nuts—of any kind—with good health.  Nuts have fats and, therefore, calories (150-200 per ounce).

The nut industry would like to minimize concerns about fats and calories.  It funds research to demonstrate that nut fats are healthy (which they are) and that you don’t have to worry about the calories (which you do, depending on what else you eat).  Hence:

The study: Almond Bioaccessibility in a Randomized Crossover Trial: Is a Calorie a Calorie?  Nishi SK, et al.  Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2021;nn(n):1-12, Published April 11, 2021.

Methods: This is a clinical trial in which subjects with hyperlipidemia consumed about 1 or 2 ounces a day of almonds versus muffins with equivalent calories.

Results: “Almond-related energy bioaccessibility was 78.5%±3.1%, with an average energy loss of 21.2%±3.1% (40.6 kcal/d in the full-dose almond phase).”

Conclusion:  “Energy content of almonds may not be as bioaccessible in individuals with hyperlipidemia as predicted by Atwater factors, as suggested by the increased fat excretion with almond intake compared with the control.”

Comment #1: The authors went to a lot of expensive trouble to demonstrate what has been known for a long time: almonds as typically consumed have only about 80% of the calories listed in standard tables.  This is because some of the fat is excreted rather than absorbed.  Chewing is not as efficient as machine grinding in separating fat from fiber.  When nuts are machine ground, their fats are more fully released and their calories similar to values obtained in calorimeters.

So guess who paid for this?

Grant Support: …the Almond Board of California…[and several other sources].

Potential competing interests: Where to begin?  The list takes three full columns of printed page.  Several of the authors report grants or consulting arrangements with entities such as the Almond Board of California, American Peanut Council, International Nut & Dried Fruit Council (INC), International Tree Nut Council Research and Education Foundation, California Walnut Commission, Peanut Institute, and the International Tree Nut Council.  But authors also report funding relationships that seem irrelevant to this study, such as the Dairy Farmers of Canada, Ocean Spray, the Saskatchewan & Alberta Pulse Growers Associations, and Beyer Consumer Care.  Even odder are reports of an honorarium from the USDA for a lecture; travel support from the Canadian Society of Endocrinology and Metabolism to produce mini cases for the Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA); and, most unnecessarily, a book about vegetarian diets published by the daughters of one of the authors.

Comment #2:  I think disclosure statements like these are disrespectful of the disclosure requirement.  In this case, because several of the authors have so many financial relationships with food and drug companies, a listing of the nut-industry connections would have sufficed.  These alone would make it clear that these authors have conflicted interests that might deserve consideration in interpreting the study results.

Jun 7 2021

Industry-funded review of the week: Refined grains

The review:  Do Refined Grains Have a Place in a Healthy Dietary Pattern: Perspectives from an Expert Panel Consensus Meeting Yanni Papanikolaou, Joanne L Slavin, Roger Clemens, J Thomas Brenna, Dayle Hayes, Glenn A Gaesser, Victor L Fulgoni, III.  Current Developments in Nutrition, Volume 4, Issue 10, October 2020, nzaa125.

Method: “A scientific expert panel was convened to review published data since the release of 2015 dietary guidance in defined areas of grain research, which included nutrient intakes, diet quality, enrichment/fortification, and associations with weight-related outcomes.

Results: 

1) whole grains and refined grains can make meaningful nutrient contributions to dietary patterns,

2) whole and refined grain foods contribute nutrient density,

3) fortification and enrichment of grains remain vital in delivering nutrient adequacy in the American diet,

4) there is inconclusive scientific evidence that refined grain foods are linked to overweight and obesity, and

5) gaps exist in the scientific literature with regard to grain foods and health.

Supported by the Grain Foods Foundation.  The sponsors (Grain Foods Foundation) had no role in the design of the study or in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of the data.

Author disclosures: YP, as President of Nutritional Strategies, provides food, nutrition, and regulatory affairs consulting services for food and beverage companies and food-related associations and collaborates with VLF on NHANES analyses. VLF, as Senior Vice President of Nutrition Impact, provides food and nutrition consulting services for food and beverage companies. VLF also conducts analyses of NHANES data for members of the food industry. JLS, RC, JTB, DH, and GAG all received an honorarium and travel expenses in the current scientific collaboration.

Comment: The Grain Foods Foundation commissioned the panel and paid the panel participants for their service and travel.  For the authors, this was a paid gig.  The Foundation got what it paid for.  About results #1, 2, and 5, there can be no argument.  #1 and #2 are obvious and did not require a scientific panel to come to those conclusions: even refined grains have nutritional value, not least because they are fortified with several key nutrients.   That’s why these authors consider fortification and enrichment to be “vital.”

What this really is about is to demonstrat that refined grains are healthy and do no harm (#4).  But refined grains are major components of ultra-processed foods, which cause people who eat them to take in more calories than they recognize or need (see Hall et al, 2019) and are strongly associated with higher levels of obesity, chronic disease, and mortality.  Despite dozens of studies consistently linking ultra-processed foods to these conditions, this industry-sponsored panel says the evidence is inconclusive.

The underlying purpose of this study, therefore, is to cast doubt on the connection between refined grains, ultra-processed foods, and weight gain.

With independently funded research, even by biased researchers, the underlying purpose is usually explicit.

–Thanks to Lisa Young for alerting me to this one.

Jun 1 2021

Industry-funded study of the week: Mushrooms!

Method:  The investigators obtained data on the nutrient content of 84 grams of mushrooms and looked to see how consuming them might change typical dietary intake patterns.

Conclusion: “Addition of mushrooms to USDA Food Patterns increased several micronutrients including shortfall nutrients (such as potassium, vitamin D and choline), and had a minimal or no impact on overall calories, sodium or saturated fat.”

Funding: “The study and the writing of the manuscript were supported by the Mushroom Council.”

Conflict of interest : “SA as Principal of NutriScience LLC performs nutrition science consulting for various food and beverage companies and related entities; and VLF as Senior Vice President of Nutrition Impact, LLC performs consulting and database analyses for various food and beverage companies and related entities.”

Comment: As I keep saying, all fruits and vegetables have nutritional value.  Some have more of one nutrient than another.  A good dietary strategy is to vary them to meet needs for the nutrients they contain.   The only scientific purpose of this study is to demonstrate that mushrooms have nutrients.  I could have told them that.

This study is about marketing, not science.  It was conducted by a firm that specializes in industry-funded studies useful for marketing purposes.

May 24 2021

Industry-funded study of the week: Cultured meat

US and UK Consumer Adoption of Cultivated Meat: A Segmentation Study.  Keri Szejda, Christopher J. Bryant, Tessa UrbanovichFoods 2021, 10(5), 1050.

Background: “Despite growing evidence of the environmental and public health threats posed by today’s intensive animal production, consumers in the west remain largely attached to meat. Cultivated meat offers a way to grow meat directly from cells, circumventing these issues as well as the use of animals altogether.”

Purpose: “The aim of this study was to assess the overall consumer markets and a range of preferences around cultivated meat in the US and the UK relating to nomenclature, genetic modification, health enhancements, and other features.”

Conclusion: “there are solid consumer markets for cultivated meat in the UK and the US, despite an overall lack of familiarity with the product. Younger generations are the most open to trying cultivated meat, and government seals of approval are considered important. Consumers tend to prefer non-GM cultivated meat, and while nutritional enhancements do not add much to consumer appeal overall, they may be an effective way to provide tangible benefits to more skeptical consumers.”

Funding: “This work was supported by Aleph Farms. Aleph Farms participated in the study design, but not other aspects of the project.”

Conflicts of interest: “The authors report no conflicts of interest.”

Comment: Aleph Farms produces cell-based meat substitutes: “We’re paving a new way forward in the field of cultivated meat, growing delicious, real beef steaks from the cells of cows, eliminating the need for slaughtering animals or harming the environment.”

The company paid for consumer research to find out how to sell its product.   The authors perceive no conflicted interests in this kind of paid research.  The biases induced by paid research are often unconscious and unrecognized.  The result of this study is an implied suggestion to add nutrients to cell-based meat products as a means to convince people to buy them.

This is marketing research.

Thanks to Michele Simon for sending a query about this paper.

May 17 2021

Industry-funded study of the week: Soy foods

I recently received an email from the Soyfoods Council: “If You’re Confused About Endocrine Disruptors, Here’s Why Soy Isn’t One.”

The email explained that “the Soyfoods Council is a non-profit organization, created and funded by Iowa soybean farmers, providing a complete resource to increase awareness of soyfoods, educate and inform media, healthcare professionals, consumers and the retail and foodservice markets about the many benefits of soyfoods.  Iowa is the country’s number one grower of soybeans and is the Soyfoods Capital of the world.”

The email referred to a just-published paper

The Study: Neither soyfoods nor isoflavones warrant classification as endocrine disruptors: a technical review of the observational and clinical data, by Mark Messina,Sonia Blanco Mejia,Aedin Cassidy,Alison Duncan,Mindy Kurzer,Chisato Nagato, et al.  Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, published online: 27 Mar 2021.

Conclusion: After extensive [my emphasis] review, the evidence does not support classifying isoflavones as endocrine disruptors.

Funding: “Funds were provided by the Soy Nutrition Institute and the European Plant-based Food Association to MM and the Toronto 3D Knowledge Synthesis & Clinical Trials Foundation for work related to the development and writing of this paper.”

Disclosures: Mark John Messina receives funding from the Soy Nutrition Institute as its Executive Director. Both Mindy Kurzer and John Sievenpiper are on the advisory board of the Soy Nutrition Institute. Ian Rowland is on the advisory board of the European Plant-based Foods Association. I have disclosed those interests fully to Taylor & Francis, and have in place an approved plan for managing any potential conflicts arising from these positions.

Comment: “Extensive” is an understatement; the paper has 688 references.  This may be overkill, but its purpose is to put to rest any concerns that soybeans might act as endocrine disrupters and, therefore, should be avoided.  The Soy Foods Council, obviously, wants you to stop worrying about this and paid for this review for that purpose.

I’m not particularly worried about soybeans.  As I wrote in What to Eat, I view soy as neither poison nor panacea.  But there is plenty of evidence on both sides.  That’s why paid reviews are not helpful.