Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Studies Show

The food and nutrition industry has fallen head-over-heels in love with clinical studies. Everyone has them now. Even those late night TV infomercials for the diet pills that "make the fat melt away without you having to make any changes in your daily routine!" are now "supported by clinical studies". Should you pay any attention to any of this?

As with nearly everything in nutrition and wellness these days, you need to take claims of clinical evidence skeptically. According to a January 2007 study by Boston Children's Hospital and published in the Public Library of Science Medicine, industry supported studies were 4 to 7 times more likely to be favorable to their sponsors than research paid for by disinterested parties. To be fair, the study suggests that such bias may not always be deliberate, citing the study design, what data is collected and how it is analyzed, and even the way the questions themselves are framed can all influence the results. And this bias is not limited to the food industry or even commercial organizations. Studies funded by government and advocacy groups show similar levels of bias.

Unfortunately, given the opportunity to gain favorable publicity for their position or products, few organizations are able to resist trumpeting their clinical proof - whether it proves anything or not. The media quickly and uncritically publicize such study results, which in turn drives consumer behavior. And this assumes that a study was actually done in the first place. The food and nutrition industry is notorious for taking the results of other, unrelated studies, extracting one out-of-context item, and then using it as "clinical proof" that their Sugar Coated Flax Seed Flakes are good for you.

What is a consumer to do? First of all, the double blind clinical study is still the gold standard for medical and wellness research. Just be aware that what someone tells you that "studies show", they may or may not have a clue what they are talking about. Who conducted the study? Who paid for it? Who analyzed the results? Independent, credible, research based organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest or Consumers Union are unlikely to produce unreliable results. Studies sponsored or heavily supported by anyone with something to gain from the results, including universities, should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. Caveat emptor.

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