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Is Everything That We Think We Know About Nutrition Wrong?

On March 17, 2018, The New York Times published an article about a new study being performed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Predicted to last 10 years, the study’s purpose is to discover whether a daily alcoholic drink would be a part of a healthy lifestyle. This process is expensive and time-consuming–costing about $100 million dollars. The scientists in charge of the study pitched the project to potential backers in a presentation at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. The audience for the presentation? Various high-ranking executives for several liquor companies, and some of which are donating to a private foundation whose purpose is to sponsor studies conducted by the NIH.

Naturally, when the rest of the NIH realized this, it raised alarm bells (and with good reason);  there is a risk that certain important parts of scientific studies could be downplayed or ignored by the researchers to get a result that the liquor companies would like.  As such, investigations are being made both to find out whether the researchers violated government policy and also whether the study is still salvageable.

Of course, this case prompts one to take a closer look at other nutritional studies and to realize that the kinds of regulations that would be found in, for example, medical studies about a powerful new drug that could combat cancer, do not exist for nutritional studies.  New regulations, if Congress were able to pass them, would certainly help fight this oversight. This might also get rid of those annoying “miracle food” ads that pop up in the corner of computer screens all the time. 

These types of ads and studies that “prove” that certain types of food will cause you to become the perfect specimen of humanity are not actually scientific at all: they are just marketing for companies that want you to buy their food, mostly by emphasizing certain things those foods have and then convincing people that because those things are good, the foods are good, too. For example, blueberries are considered excellent for your health because they have antioxidants. However, the importance of antioxidants was not made known by a nutritionist through a scientific paper, but by the executive director of the Wild Blueberry Association, who spread the idea that antioxidants are good for you, followed quickly by the idea that blueberries have a lot of them. Soon enough, blueberry sales took off. That isn’t science, that’s marketing. And it is perhaps the most dangerous kind of marketing there is.

Rabin, Roni Caryn.  “Federal Agency Courted Alcohol Industry to Fund Study on Benefits of Modern Drinking.”  New York Times, March 17, 2018.

Hamblin, James.  “Asking for a Friend: How People Came to Believe that Blueberries are thee Healthiest Fruit.”  The Atlantic, November 15, 2017.

Written by: By Julien Osborne

Edited by: Karen Yung and Kaylynn Crawford