Food Industry – Surprise! Your Product Is Not So Great

August 25, 2015 in Food Economics, Foodland, General by Joyce Bunderson

Wonders never cease! A couple of food industry-funded studies have come up short for the industries that funded them. At UCLA (where I studied for my Masters in Public Health, Nutrition degree) I was taught to always beware of industry-funded studies. Not that industry-funded studies cannot provide good research; but that it is unlikely. Two recent studies have provided some surprise results. One study was about butter and another was about pistachios; both studies found results that the industry did not hope for. Certainly, both industries were likely very unhappy with the results of the studies.

The study about butter, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that even moderate levels of butter consumption could result in higher total and LDL (bad) cholesterol than alternatives like olive oil. Ouch!!! The butter industry must really be wincing, because they paid for the study.

The study regarding pistachios was published in PLOS ONE in November of 2014. Again, another big surprise! (For those wishful thinkers who provided the funding, not for anyone who knows the nutritional content of pistachios). The Pistachio industry was probably shocked when the results showed that the cyclists in the study were slower after consuming pistachios. Not exactly what they were hoping for when they opened their checkbook. My comment about the industry doing wishful thinking is simply that when you eat any kind of nuts, pistachios or most others, you get mostly fat and protein, not carbs that are quickly converted to energy. The body has to work harder to digest nuts, which apparently translated into slower cycling compared to other bikers consuming carbs.

The other research study was about eating butter. Roberto A. Ferdman, of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, wrote: A study about butter, funded by the butter industry, found that butter is bad for you. Ferdman reported on Marion Nestle’s work, which is, of course renowned. She’s in the front line in the battle with the deceptive food industry research. She writes a blog called Food Politics where she flags questionable and offending research. Presently, Nestle is writing a book about the soda industry; which is a flagrant offender in the practice of funding self-serving studies. Ferdman says that Marion Nestle “estimates that 90 percent of studies about soda that were funded by the soda industry conclude that soda isn’t all that bad for you. Among studies funded by everyone else, 90 percent found just the opposite is true.” Amazing, but not surprising! The food industry IS BUSINESS! Its purpose is not to advance science, nor is it charity to the nice university who does the study.

I’ll share just a few words about butter. I think that I was influenced negatively about the use of margarine, when my father would say that margarine was “axel grease” if it was brought to his table. I’ve never seen axel grease; but it sounds pretty unappealing/unappetizing. I counted myself lucky when the big news came out about trans fats; which of course, were in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil margarine, among other products. Fortunately, I’ve not been a big user of butter, but I’ve continued to use butter on vegetables and special dishes. The new butter study cited above, should help me be even more sparing in the use of butter. Like many of you, I enjoy the flavor of butter, but I’m not excited about consuming something that will raise my cholesterol and specifically my LDL cholesterol.

When we look at a new study, let’s pay special attention to who paid for it. Even if the food industry is just trying to pay for research which they fondly hope will result in pronouncing their particular product the latest and greatest new super food, it’s something that we should consider before making changes to our diet. If industry-funded research comes out against the industry’s product, we should pay greater attention to it, because that is unusual; the researchers are likely saying ‘goodbye’ to future funding from that group.