David Payne: Should we trust what scientists say about food?

If you open your newspaper in the next few weeks to read a feature entitled “Ten things you should ask a scientist,” chances are the idea came from a debate held in London this week about whether we can trust what they say about food.

A survey published by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) suggests people trust what their mothers tell them more than they trust what scientists tell them. A microbiologist can tell us till they’re blue in the face that eating cooked chicken from a factory contaminated in bird flu is safe, but 90% of us would still be worried about doing do.

Hosted by the FSA at the Royal College of Physicians, the two hour discussion focused on the value of observational studies, open access journals, the role of anecdotal evidence, and the pros and cons of peer reviewed research.

More specifically, it touched on our complex relationship with food and our desire for certainty, even when the evidence is poor.

So when a story tells us that new research “proves” that giving teenagers fish oil pills can boost their concentration levels, the story should also tell us what kind of research it is, how big the sample size is, if it was peer reviewed etc. In other words, the stuff that might make the reader question why it was reported in the first place.

There is another way, of course, a point made by panellist and BMJ columnist Ben Goldacre. The devil is in the drilldown, and any self respecting website should link to the actual research paper, or abstract, so the reader can access the data.

Many do, of course, including the Food Standards Agency’s website, which I edited until last month before starting a similar job on bmj.com.

For us it was easy. The agency’s website was usually linking to research it had commissioned in the first place, so we felt a degree of ownership and knew exactly when a particular paper would go live.

The problem was usually if an issue had attracted coverage, such as research suggesting a link between some artificial colours and hyperactivity, but the actual study was still being peer reviewed. So should more FSA commissioned research be published without peer review?

Professor Colin Blakemore, former Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council and Chair of the FSA’s new Advisory Committee on Science, said: “I think we over value peer review in many respects. Scientists are human beings. Are they competing? Are they hiding their incompetence?”

But he added: “At least it’s an attempt at quality control…and I don’t think there’s a better way.” Any comments? Have your say on the blog.

  • Dear Sirs
    Should we trust what Scientists say about any Disorder of the mind or body, not one illness has ever been “Cured” by So called Evidenced Based Medicine, managed yes. And so often not managed very well and always another illness is created by the very Treatments created by these Funded Scientists, perhaps they have no desire to create a “Cure” for if they do, no more funding.
    Talking Cures are at this moment in time creating Real – as a precedent – Evidence by treating patients with a wide Heterogeneous range of medical failures and documenting it to the Patients Doctors and The PCT who (the PCT) are doing their best to suppress this ground breaking move. They will not succeed.
    The range of Illnesses being treated within this process is:
    Person 1. Fibromyalgia, Hiatus Hernia, Hyper Active Thyroid, High Cholesterol.
    Person 2. Fibromyalgia, Depression, Migraine, Menstruation, heavy bleeding.
    Person 3. Manic Depression/Bi-Polar Disorder, Chronic Back Pain, Diabetes, Hyper Active Thyroid, Hiatus Hernia, High Blood Pressure. Constipation.
    All persons are showing a marked improvement since starting Talking Cures Treatment in December 2007, with much of the improvement demonstrated by Blood Test carried out by their Doctors with a resultant lowering or removal by their Doctors of the collective of Nineteen Drugs, the majority prescribed by the Doctor and a few self prescribed.
    When such times as these so called Scientist understand just Tiredness as Talking Cures and can treat and cure it, as Talking Cures then and only then will there be a move towards Evidenced Based Medicine, leading the way to understand the cause of all illnesses and thus the possibility of a cure.

    You may request copies of the documents submitted to the Doctors and PCT as Talking Cures has irrevocable authority from the patients within this trial, to copy their detailed report to any person within the medical establishment that should or does express an interest, this does not include Public Publication.
    Bottom line “Not until the Scientists deliver an Evidenced Based Medicine that brings about a cure of illness let alone Food or Diet can they ever be trusted; they are taking the heart and soul out of our dedicated and very professional Medical Teams all over the World.
    This may be posted anywhere.

    Peter Smith
    Talking Cures
    Southend on Sea Essex England 01702 603030

  • This blog entry made me think of the need to translate research results into daily language. Often we use abstract terms that are not fully understood at population level. One example could be the concept of fatty acids. Even for a food scientist with quite some knowledge on food chemistry, all the features of fatty acids are unlikely to be known by heart. So, it does not surprise me that some people did not yet realize that polyunsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids are the same. Which brings me to the next point: how much of the information provided is actually used by consumers in order to make their decisions? and the other open question would be: are we sure that the uninitiated (in food science terms) actually understand the information?

    Armando Perez Cueto, PhD
    Postdoctoral Researcher
    Department of Agricultural Economics
    Ghent Universty
    Coupure Links 653
    B-9000 Gent

  • Prof A. Mark Clarfield

    As the brilliant American journalist Michaal Pollan has it, there are only 3 simple commandments relating to healthy nutrition:

    1) eat food [he means nothing wrappred in packaging , processed ,etc.]

    2)not too much

    3)mostly plants

    For the details I suggest reading his articles or books .If you don’t have the time, stick with the commandments .If you are less pressed , try consulting his fine artilcle in the NY Times Magazine [Jan 28,2007].

    In any case it seems as simple as my mother’s heartfelt injunction for us to eat up our fruits and veggies…

  • Theresa Currey

    I am not sure how health marketing works in the U.K., but here in the U.S. people are terribly suspicious about evidence-based medical claims, often with good reason. We are bombarded with advertisements that encourage us to ask for a new drug if we are shy, nervous, growing older and less interested in sex, sometimes have trouble sleeping or eat all the wrong things, thus causing high cholesterol or heartburn: all normal conditions of life. Each claim shows some effect in the population studied. Vaccinations –like the one proposed for hepatitis in infants — will probably be regulated even though it is doubtul they will provide any protection or prevention.

    At times, our mothers did make more sense when they cautioned us to eat right, exercise, get plenty of fresh air and enough rest. I believe we are right to be somewhat suspicious and it’s unfortunate, since many modern studies provide hope and perhaps very effective treatment and relief of suffering.

  • Francisco Paez

    Maybe ongoing research on trust as a social cognition hot issue will give us scientist a way to increase the public´s awearness. On the other hand, from the social sciences perspective, “social capital” a group atribute of which “trust” is a major component, from the results of the Social Capital Survey in Mexico, 68% of the respondents said that people is not to be trusted.

    Francisco Páez, MD.
    Mexico City


    How many of these “scientists” have their research or remarks subsided by interested parties? Such as the Vegetable Oil Industry.

    Who says they are “experts”?

    Fish oil is better taken by the spoonful.

    Olive Oil is good.

    Alcohol spoils the absorption of Vitamin B. and particularly B.12.

    Margarine is an Industrial grease and has only 8% food value. It is a “food substitute”.

    No wonder Alzheimer’s cases have “plastic” Amyloid on their brain cells instead of good butter forming their good Myelin.

    No wonder the Western World is full of fat botties and thickened arteries.

    “Softened butter” is adulterated with “Transfat” oils.

    Trans-fats are the same as those heavy large molecules of cholesterol. Once inside they take a long time if ever to get out. There are no enzymes to digest industrial greases.

    Trans-fats are from processed corn oil, palm oil, soy bean oil, etc.. (The unprocessed, if you can get it, is all right but it goes off quickly. Hence the need for processing, i.e. dehydrogenation.)

    Trans-fats are present in 95% of packaged cookies, biscuits, pastries, iced-cream, puddings, mayonnaises and bottled sauces. Look at the labels for “veg. oil, veg. solids, veg. fat.”)

    Who said my cholesterol should be less than 200 mgms % when an Eskimo gets away with 400 mgms.%

    There is too much repetition without thought.

    Back then to eating best butter, double cream, pork lard and beef dripping, and real unadulterated Iced Cream.

  • Practising medicine with reference to EBM as a major criterion for making decisions is like driving your car using the rear-view mirror as a guide.
    Try it sometime.

  • David Ponsonby

    “Instinct” or “Intuition” is a powerful force that does not sit well with EBM.

    Indeed, it is popular within scientific circles to debunk so-called “old wives tales”. Often, the old wives have the last laugh for they are proven right, once science reaches an adequate level of sophistication.

    Now that the male medicalization of health has weakened, so that more doctors are mothers, maybe the two sides will merge?

    “Our studies at Harvard suggest that the average physician knows a little more about nutrition than the average secretary; unless the secretary has a weight problem. Then she probably knows more than the average physician.”
    – Jean Mayer, MD

    With the passing of my Mum, I have resigned myself to never eating the same quality of food again. So far, in 15 years there has not been an exception to this rule.

    While human taste and smell are far below those of most animals, will a laboratory ever produce a machine that can “sniff” sour milk, or rate the bouquet of a wine?

    Above all, any mature individual will be suspicious of the anonymous body of scientists who tell him, categorically, to e.g. “eat eggs” then “don’t eat eggs” and then “eat eggs again”…in order to maintain a normal cholesterol level, that is now abnormal???

    “Which is it this week?”

    Mum’s advice, likely came down from Grandma and so on and so forth, unchanged and unchanging.

    We are ineherently suspicious of change for change sake and rightly so.

    David Ponsonby

  • Edgar Garcia Manzanilla

    Starting with the famous Michael Pollan, who blames Nutrition Science as the responsible of the bad eating habits of the western people, and ending in this comments I think we need to stop this discussion and refocus in the problem and how to solve it.

    Nutritional information is not so easy to manage. You can find errors everywhere. Lets look at this comments i.e. omega3 is not the same that PUFA’s (you forgot omega 6 which are not that good), fruits and veggies are not so easy to put in the same basket as healthy, and so on.

    One of the main attacks that nutrition receive from Dr. Pollan is that scientist created the so call nutricionism and that we use it to decide what is good to eat. Well, nutrition is a clear science that uses nutrients to understand what are the effects of the nutrients on physiology. It is, and will be, the best way to study ingredients because they vary with time, location, etc. But that is only to be used by profesionals. However, there is a very important collegue of nutrition (nutricionism as called by Dr. Pollan) that is called Feeding. This term make really more sense in other languages as Spanish “alimentacion” where you can not study nutrition alone but “Nutrition and feeding”, “Nutrition and Bromatology” and so on. You need to understand that nutrients and ingredients are not the same. But this is in any single nutrition class. Dr. Pollan did not invented this concepts.

    I think Nutrition Scientist are still very trustable, or at least the most trustable people when it comes to eating. However what we see in the nutrition claims, news papers, etc is rarelly the nutritionist voice. It happens in other fields but it seems especially notable in nutrition.

    I also would like to remark that this is an English speaking countries situation. Nutrition is very separated of feeding in countries as Spain, Italy, Grece, etc and I think this countries understand better how the aproach should be done.

    E.G. Manzanilla