When I read the above quote from Marion Nestle, nutrition professor at New York University, I almost spewed my morning coffee. The callout quote appeared in the business section of the Chicago Tribune this morning.
But it wasn’t the quote that first caught my eye. Rather it was the headline, “Nutrition for sale: How candy makers shape nutrition science” that immediately had me reading Candace Choi’s article. I guess this is what you call “sexing up” an article.
Ironically, my managing editor had sent me the same article via a link a day earlier, with the note “interesting reading.” I skimmed quickly and responded with a jaded “smoke and mirrors” comment. In other words, I didn’t think this piece really carried any weight.
But first, let me explain the gist of the article in elevator pitch fashion. Choi goes on to suggest that a Louisiana State University research project, which involved tapping into government databases and then discovering that children and teens eating candy were less likely to be obese, was really marketing razzle dazzle.
She goes on to cite e-mails and a recent quote by one of the authors as evidence that the whole project was suspect at best. In addition, Choi mentions that the National Confectioners Association (NCA) asked to see the research and provided some suggestions.
Choi’s contention is that the food industry seeks out favorable market research to boost their specific goals, that is increased sales. In addition, she goes on to cite examples of associations and companies having a role in how the papers are finalized.
In her article, Choi writes, “For the paper on candy-eating children, a disclosure says the funders had no role in the ‘design, analysis or writing of this manuscript’… But emails obtained from LSU show the National Confectioners Association made a number of suggestions.”
But Christopher Gindlesperger, the NCA’s vice president of public affairs and communications, explains what happened.
“The authors offered us the courtesy of reviewing the manuscript, and we offered feedback for the author's consideration — no edits were mandatory to include, and the feedback did not alter or change the results of the research,” he says. “In fact, the results of the research in question are supported by a number of studies that were not funded by industry and were published in peer-reviewed journals.
“The vast majority of available research (including research not funded by industry) supports that consumers understand the unique role that chocolate, candy, gum and mints can play in a happy, balanced lifestyle,” he continues. “People appreciate that candy is an honest and transparent treat, and they are choosing their moment to enjoy it.”
Common sense, correct? But there’s more. On May 4, I wrote about a new research survey done by Australian scientists involving 180,000 kids.
Published in the April 13 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Constantine Gasser and her colleagues discovered “that the more chocolate and candy kids ate, the slimmer they tended to be. The odds of being overweight or obese were 18 percent lower among the most avid consumers of chocolate and candy.”
She went on to explain that… “Instead of overweight and obese children and adolescents having higher confectionery intakes, this review shows the reverse effect. This result might reflect a true inverse association, reverse causality, or differential underreporting in heavier individuals. Interventions may need to focus on dietary elements other than confectionery to tackle obesity.”
Hmmm. Sounds familiar?
Does this cancel out Choi’s claim about food science research being biased? No, I’m sure there have been and will continue to be research studies that are looking for a marketable health claim… and results that sustain that claim. Still, many researchers and scientists realize that their reputation is on the line; it’s a small community and it doesn’t take long before word gets around that a research paper is flawed.
Nonetheless, does that mean only health claims move sales, as Nestle claims? Can’t hurt, I suppose, but somehow, I don’t think the confectionery industry relies on health claims to spur sales. Merchandising, promotions, advertising, clever media campaigns and innovative/convenient/tasty products do much more.
Another thing, candy makers are not selling nutrition. They are selling sweetness, taste, comfort, indulgence, a permissible treat. Moreover, I don’t see them influencing nutritional scientists the way the Chicago Tribune headline suggests.
What I would suggest is a bit of moderation and common sense in headline writing and generalizations. From a confectionery perspective, it’s — as I mentioned earlier — smoke and mirrors.