industrial nutrition advice

What’s the biggest industry in the world? Take a guess.

Healthcare? Banking? Oil?

Nope. It’s food. The food industry services over seven billion customers a day. It’s been estimated that half of all the world’s assets, labor, and consumer expenditures belong to the food industry.

Just think of all the world’s supermarkets, restaurants, fast-food chains, food stands, food trucks, vending machines, food corporations, farmers, agricultural conglomerates, and meatpacking companies. Taken together, these entities bring in trillions of dollars each year.

Does this ocean of money affect official diet advice?

In 2016, it made headlines that a review on heart-disease risk factors published by Harvard researchers in 1967 in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine had been the result of blatant industry corruption.

Evidence that sugar was associated with heart disease had been mounting since the 1950s, but this 1967 review blamed heart disease almost entirely on saturated fat, minimized the role of sugar, downplayed and ignored conflicting evidence, and helped frame the heart-disease discussion for decades to come.

It turns out that the sugar industry, through their Sugar Research Foundation, had paid three of these Harvard researchers—including Mark Hegsted, who would later help shape US dietary guidelines—the modern equivalent of $50,000 to write an explicitly pro-sugar review.

No industry funding was disclosed in the study.

Speaking of hearts, the American Heart Association recommends that we avoid saturated fat, and cook with vegetable oil instead of butter. Vegetable oils are by far the biggest dietary source of n-6 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat. And in 2009, the AHA released an advisory to the public on n-6 fatty acids.

In other words, they released an advisory on vegetable oil.

The lead author of this AHA advisory was William Harris. At the time, Harris was a consultant for Monsanto, the world’s biggest producer of the seeds used to make vegetable oil. Harris was also a consultant for Unilever, maker of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!—the first ingredient of which is vegetable oil.

Unilever also employed another author on the advisory, as well as one of its three official reviewers. 

This advisory concluded that at least five to ten percent of all our calories should come from n-6 fatty acids (vegetable oil) if we want to lower our risk of heart disease—and that “higher intakes appear to be safe and may be even more beneficial.”

So paid consultants for vegetable-oil companies concluded that vegetable oils are safe, and that we should eat more of them.

It turns out that over 90% of industry-sponsored nutrition studies produce results favorable to that industry. Compared to studies with no industry funding, industry-funded studies are almost eight times more likely to produce favorable results.

A 2007 study found that if a nutrition study pertained to a certain food industry—but had no industry funding—there was a 37% chance it would produce a bad result for that industry. With industry funding, however, that number dropped to 0%.

Back to the AHA advisory. Unsurprisingly, there were other scientists—who weren’t paid vegetable-oil consultants—who strongly disagreed with the AHA’s conclusion. One commentary published in the British Journal of Nutrition questioned whether the advisory was “evidence based or biased evidence?”

The next year, the British Journal of Nutrition published a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials (the Holy Grail of evidence) on fatty acids and heart disease. It specifically addressed the AHA advisory, concluding:

Advice to specifically increase n-6 PUFA intake…is unlikely to provide the intended benefits, and may actually increase the risk of coronary heart disease and death.

The researchers accused the AHA advisory of ignoring relevant studies and including studies with serious limitations to support its conclusions.

Who to believe? Scientists with no obvious agenda, or scientists employed by vegetable-oil companies?


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