Food for thought: Why consumers need to be skeptical about diet research

Was somebody handing out free breakfasts worldwide, tied up in ribbons with an expenses-paid trip to Paris included? That might justify why so many news reports this week gave such sizzle to a study by experts convened by the World Health Organization. Alas, no such giveaway was under way, and the sober scientists were explaining something already known: Eating red- and processed-meats, including bacon, sausage, ham, and hot dogs, causes cancer. Really? OK. But that evidence-based, sensible view still stirred sufficient hyperbole about favorite American dietary staples that vital context about these health findings all too often got crisped.

Yes, research shows that a heavy, prolonged diet of red- and processed-meats is unhealthy and should be avoided. Moderation matters, in diet as in most other things. But, as other experts hastened to chasten the excitable, the scientists at the WHO’s International Agency for Research for Cancer addressed in their work causes for cancer, particularly for bowel cancers. This information adds to the more complicated question about individuals’ risk for the disease.

That’s a nuanced matter and it needs to take in many, many factors, including how foods get prepared, levels of personal consumption, the complex matter of individual predisposition to a given disease, and the exacting role any one substance plays in directly causing cancer by itself.

To put the issue in perspective, British experts pointed out that evidence shows that 86% of lung cancers in the UK are caused by tobacco, and if no one smoked there would be 64,500 fewer lung cancer cases annually;  processed and red meat, in contrast, cause 21% of bowel cancers in the UK, and if no one consumed these foodstuffs in Britain, there would be 8,800 fewer bowel cancer cases.

Do the subtraction, and you can see how smoking is far and away the more important cause of preventable cancers.

While this week’s WHO recommendations on red- and processed-meats are valuable for how they will advance policy measures to better protect people’s lives globally, a key takeaway from the coverage of this study underscores the importance of educated, skeptical, and careful consumers of diet and health information. As the New York Times noted in its scrutiny of other reports on another topic in this area — whether honey is better than sugar as a sweetener — reports on nutrition studies can be woeful and the wise need to, “Treat the results of … research with the respect they deserve, but ignore the grandiose proclamations.”

And if caveat emptor isn’t the motto already for the public, the Los Angeles Times provides further reason why it must be: The paper’s consumer columnist  reports that a popular fast-food chain is under attack from a nonprofit group for undertaking what experts say is a positive health move — switching, as many businesses in the industry have, to antibiotic-free beef and chicken to help preserve the effectiveness of vital medicines for humans.

What’s the problem with the fire that the Chipotle chain’s taking for its shift? It’s coming from the impressively named Center for Consumer Freedom, which the paper calls “a shill for business interests that want to sway public policy while keeping their names out of the news.” Scratch away at the center and its health comments and, voila, behind it lies a public relations firm. Its head also runs the Employment Policy Institute, which campaigns against a higher minimum wage; the American Beverage Institute, which opposes limits on alcohol sales; and the Environmental Policy Alliance, which is committed to “uncovering the funding and hidden agendas behind environmental activist groups.” The Times says, “Each of these nonprofit organizations funnels money to … [the] PR firm to manage their operations,” and as the executive of a watchdog group says of its chief, “”He’s created so-called charities, and he’s getting really, really rich off them.”

Yes. Let the reader beware.

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