Bad Science and Childhood Obesity

The preponderance of evidence gathered over the past decades indicates that candy isn’t really an ideal component of a healthful diet. Still, there are conflicting reports.

The Associated Press obtained records from public universities in an effort to assess the influence that food companies have on the public perception of what constitutes healthful eating. They discovered an interesting paper “funded by a trade association representing the makers of Butterfingers, Hershey and Skittles.” The research showed that children who eat candy tend to weigh less than children who don’t.

According to this report, even Louisiana State University Prof. Carol O’Neil, one of the co-authors, characterized the study as “thin.” In the section that every such paper includes to describe its limitations, the authors noted that the data “may not reflect usual intake” and that “cause and effect associations cannot be drawn,” says journalist Candice Choi.

The information on which the study was based came from government surveys where people self-reported their food consumption over the previous 24 hours. Choi goes on to say:

One of the industry’s most powerful tactics is the funding of nutrition research. It carries the weight of academic authority, becomes a part of scientific literature and generates headlines…

Critics say the worry is that they’re hijacking science for marketing purposes, and that they cherry-pick or hype findings.

The Associated Press investigation looked not only at studies, but also at emails connected with the various projects. Regarding the candy study, they found that the National Confectioners Association had quite a bit of (possibly inappropriate) input.

Concerning a different study (about candy and adults) one of the co-authors told another, “I have finally waded through the comments from NCA. Attached is my attempt to edit based on their feedback.”

This is not a widely recognized best practice for conducting meaningful research. Choi says:

Since 2009, the authors of the candy paper have written more than two dozen papers funded by parties including Kellogg and industry groups for beef, milk and fruit juice… Their studies regularly delivered favorable conclusions for funders — or as they call them, “clients.”

The candy study reflects a basic problem, which is the difficulty of isolating the impact that any particular food can have on a person’s weight. This causes confusion and ambiguity, Choi says. The mental disturbance paves the way for marketers to make what they call “aggressive” and “science-based” claims that are also highly unrealistic. In some cases, doing this kind of research becomes a career path.

The line

Correspondence between the AP investigative journalists and the college also raised some serious questions about the funding aspect.

Sometimes it is hard to know where an ethical line exists. The ace criterion of research is that anybody with the same setup, methodology, materials, etc., should be able to duplicate the experiment. As long as no other institution is barred from trying to do that, it is hard to summon a solid objection, as long as the public knows who paid for it, and can take that into account.

Yet, not every corporation has beneficent aims. Many business school graduates specialize in brainwashing a gullible public, and somebody has to ride herd on those bandits.

A different kind of professor

Over the past year, New York University professor Marion Nestle reviewed 168 industry-funded studies, and to no one’s surprise, 156 of them showed results favorable to the interests of their corporate sponsors. Just to drive the point home, out of 168 experiments, only 12 yielded conclusions that the food manufacturers obviously were not looking for. Prof. Nestle occasionally features the more egregious ones on her FoodPolitics website, if they raise issues she is interested in discussing, or if the sponsored study in question is “particularly amusing.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “AP Exclusive: How candy makers shape nutrition science,”, 06/02/16
Source: “Six industry-funded studies. The score for the year: 156/12,”, 03/18/16
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