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Good Foods – Bad Foods. What’s a Consumer to Believe?

January 10, 2014

I have been compensated for my time by McNeil Nutritionals, LLC, the maker of SPLENDA® Sweetener Products. All statements and opinions are my own. I have pledged to Blog With Integrity, asserting that the trust of my readers and the blogging community is vitally important to me.

It has become an almost weekly occurrence – a “new” study on the health attributes of various foods – either pro or con – is touted on television, in newspapers, via the Internet or word of mouth through the neighborhood grapevine.  (For many, Internet social media outlets are today’s neighborhood grapevine, one that is much faster moving than in years past!).

So what are you supposed to do with the latest information that may have an impact on what you eat and drink?

Keep in mind that many consumers rely on reporters to review a “hot, new” research study and put the study’s conclusions into simple terms by compacting and rephrasing the scientific lingo.  But given some reporters’ limited scientific backgrounds and the urgency to get news disseminated in a concise fashion, scientific research is often misconstrued and lacking in perspective when reported in the popular media. Sometimes new papers made available in scientific journals can be solely opinion pieces that rehash old theories no longer supported by the overall data.  Or they can be reports on small studies that should not be the basis for safety determinations.  Unfortunately, it is common that the media can focus on such publications, especially when there is a catchy story to be made.

 “Frustrated and confused by the tremendous amount of food and health information reported nowadays, many people want simple certainties to help them protect their health through diet. The trouble is that single studies rarely provide such certainty, although they often get big headlines.”

To help you use common sense when you read or hear that research on “such and such food has been found to be X (insert frightening or praising word),” here are some important concepts to keep in mind.

A few basics to understanding nutrition research:

1. Does the headline reflect what the article actually says? In many cases, especially with print media, the headline is written by someone other than the person who wrote the article. Often 2+2 doesn’t make 4.

2. What kind of scientific paper is being discussed? There are many types and each carries an entirely different significance. Here are but a few…

  1. A study in a laboratory that uses certain types of cells combined with the food or ingredient being evaluated (“in vitro” or “test tube” research). While such studies can be rudimentary, they may demonstrate if more research steps should or should not be taken.  However, such studies may also shed no new light on a topic, when there are more reliable studies available, such as studies in living animals or people.
  2. Animals are sometimes used to evaluate the ingredient, in a variety of ways (far too many to list here). This is often required by law and usually done before testing with humans is permitted. Animals as small as fruit flies can be used in some situations.
  3. Studies with humans, where they consume the food or ingredient, are (generally speaking) called “clinical trials”. These may involve very few people (let’s say six as an example) or hundreds of people. A positive or negative outcome within a single clinical trial usually does not result in changes in dietary recommendations. Instead, experts look at the totality of evidence, which includes both animal studies and all of the available clinical evidence.
  4. Another type of human study is called an epidemiology study. This is where researchers evaluate the health outcomes of large populations over long periods of time. While epidemiology studies can be extremely valuable, they cannot and do not show a direct cause and effect. Only well-designed clinical trials can do that.

3. Is the new “study” discussing actual new research? Or is it a review of research?

  1. If new research is being discussed, was it published in a well-known and well-respected scientific journal where other scientists have reviewed the conclusions being reached?  (These publications are referred to as peer-reviewed publications.) Online journals and many lesser known journals sometimes do not have reliable checks for the quality of the conclusions being drawn. Also, presentations made at scientific meetings typically don’t receive the same scientific scrutiny as full research papers.
  2. If the “study” is a review paper, is it published in a respected journal, and have experts reviewed the conclusions that have been reached?  It’s important to know that the scientific literature can include “opinion” pieces that are intentionally provocative, but not necessarily supported by the breadth of information available.

4. The bottom line?  It is not prudent or scientifically sound to change dietary habits based on one, two or even several studies, without a consensus review by scientific safety and efficacy experts. There are worldwide scientific organizations who constantly evaluate food, nutrition and health-related research in total. Healthcare professionals generally do not suggest anyone make changes based on a single study or two, no matter how much publicity it gets!  Recommendations happen over time and are done after reviewing the outcomes of many, many studies. To learn more about the expert reviews of the extensive research on sucralose (the sweetening ingredient in SPLENDA® Sweetener Products), visit the SPLENDA LIVING™ Resources page.

So, the next time your best friend on Facebook tells you to stop – or start – eating a certain food because of something she/he read about the night before, be realistic. Just as there are no magic overnight cures for anything, one study is not going to change the way we eat.

Sue Taylor is a consulting nutritionist with more than 35 years of experience. She is passionate about sharing her nutrition knowledge and fondness for good, healthy food. Sue will put relevant information in consumer terms and provide valuable perspective to clear up misinformation and confusion about nutrition and food safety.

January 10, 2014  |  POSTED BY: Sue Taylor, MS  |  IN: Safety and Ingredients, Sugar Substitutes


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