Butting Heads

The Competing Interests Fueling Nutrition Controversy

Some controversies in nutrition seem eternal. People never tire of arguing that no-calorie sweeteners are bad for us. Red meat is either nourishing or noxious, depending upon who’s taking up the argument. The list is endless. And the arguments never fade because feelings are strong, though the data backing them up is often weak. And when the data is weak, competing interests come into play.

Diet Soda

“There’s a decent chance you’ll be reading about diet soda studies until the day you die,” says Aaron Carroll in the New York Times. That’s because people feel strongly about artificial stuff in their food. Plus, we’re all supposed to be mad at Big Soda for making us fat and giving us diabetes. So anyone who disagrees must be captive to their commercial interests.

But Carroll points out a couple of other competing interests. First, some of the scientists publishing studies to question the safety of artificial sweeteners really need to keep on publishing. The academic paradigm of publish or perish is alive and well. And then there is the pressure to make use of huge, pre-existing datasets that researchers can mine for more and more observational studies. Carroll suggests how this onslaught of observational data grows ever larger:

A few universities produce a disproportionate amount of the research on these topics. They also tend to be the universities with the most resources and the most recognizable names. Because they’re also usually prestigious, they attract more researchers and more funding to build bigger and newer data sets.

Meat and Plants

The subject of red meat and plant-based diets seems to be an eternal flash point. When we recently raised questions about fake meat and milk products, trial by Twitter was one response:

Sounds like this was underwritten by big ag itself. Where’s the truth in labeling about the hormones, antibiotics and the myriad of other chemicals in the packaged exploited, tortured, slaughtered, ground up dead animals and their secretions?

Likewise, people are still agitated by a series of articles about red meat published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Advocates for plant-based diets don’t like it one bit that these folks say the evidence for health risks associated with red meat is weak. Not one little bit.

So the response has shifted to a search for competing interests of the authors. Some of them have “ties to a program partially funded by industry,” says the Washington Post. Case closed. Don’t listen to them.

Pound the Facts or Pound the Table?

Lawyers say if the facts are on your side, pound the facts to win an argument. If you have the law (or maybe guidelines) on your side, pound the law. If you have neither, just pound the table.

When people turn to competing interests in an argument over nutrition, they have resorted to pounding the table. It’s a classic ad hominem fallacy. Let’s stick with the facts, please.

If you want to read more, click here for a recent study of ad hominem attacks on scientific findings. Spoiler alert: ad hominems might be fallacious, but they do sway opinions. They’re a great tool for perpetuating bias.

Butting Heads, photograph by Mohanatnow / Wikimedia Commons

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October 16, 2019