Fans of The Office likely recall the infamous "Weight Loss" episode, in which the entire Dunder Mifflin branch tries to collectively lose weight in hopes of getting extra vacation days. Unsurprisingly, several employees undertake drastic measures to lose weight, including the notoriously dramatic Kelly Kapoor, who says: "I'm on the third day of my cleanse diet. All I have to do is drink maple syrup, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and water for all three meals." It's easy to laugh at Kelly for going to such ridiculous weight loss measures, and most of us would never go that far. However, misleading nutrition advice articles like "Bacon Just as Harmful as Cigarette Smoking!," or Blueberries: A Superfood For Your Health only adds to our confusion around what we're actually supposed to eat.  If nutrition is such a rigorously studied science, why is there still so much uncertainty and conflict of interest?  While many nutritionists are committed to advancing public health and uncovering the truth of what's actually good for us, there's many nutrition professionals who (for complex reasons) get tied up with the food industry. Some food companies have made genuine efforts to be more transparent, but at the end of the day, their goal is to sell their products, not advance public health.  Because of this, it can seem like we never get the full picture, or no one is ever on the same page. The info keeps changing back and forth, giving us a sense of "food anxiety" or numbness. After reading this blog and some of our other blogs on nutrition, you may think to yourself: "can I eat anything anymore?" While there are strategic ways to eat well, the current system makes it difficult. Due to deceptive marketing practices and the conflicting information, we might have a skepticism that we can't take anything at face value.  For instance:  Eggs have been taken on and off the naughty list because of cholesterol. First, everyone was saying they were bad because of too much cholesterol. Now they're considered a "nutritional powerhouse," packed with important micronutrients, per UC Health, a Colorado based healthcare system.   "I tell my cardiac patients that they can have as many eggs as they want within the context of a balanced meal," [UC cardiac dietitian] Jennifer Bowman said. Coffee is another prime example of this back-and-forth. Many have knocked its high caffeine levels and subsequent effect on high blood pressure. But Harvard Department of Nutrition Chair Dr. Frank Hu recently said that: "moderate coffee intake—about 2–5 cups a day—is linked to a lower likelihood of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, liver and endometrial cancers, Parkinson’s disease, and depression. It’s even possible that people who drink coffee can reduce their risk of early death." Woah. How did we get from possible high blood pressure to lowering risk of early death?  This is the exact confusion and contradiction we deal with constantly, as it seems like new research is constantly overriding or adding to what we previously knew.  Ultimately, we just want to know "is it healthy or not?" The goal isn't to eat perfectly, but to eat more aware-ly. The consensus is that a balanced, whole food diet with minimally processed foods is a generally safe course. However, part of having more awareness means understanding why nutrition advice gets so murky, and what you can do to wade through the mess and get the facts.


While clickbait-worthy headlines may lead you to believe nutrition professionals are just taking wild swings and guesses, the reality is that nutrition research is complex and imperfect. Nutritionists are often working within the confines of a broken, messy system, and their work isn't always straightforward. Still, why is it so confusing? How is it that as a society we can map the human genome yet still aren't positive if eggs are good for us or not? Unlike studies done on drugs, for instance, nutritional studies are nuanced, and we can't always look at the effects of one nutrient in isolation. With a singular drug, we can see a clear before and after effect over a period of time.  When it comes to corporate influence, there's historical evidence confirming that pharmaceutical representatives who offered benefits or compensation to doctors would be more likely to have their drug prescribed. The food industry uses the same practices in trying to influence nutrition professionals, but sometimes the lines are blurry, with food companies often denying that they had any input in influencing research.  We eat a ton of different foods, have varying levels of physical fitness, and can't really be experimented on extensively without crossing ethical boundaries.  Rarely does a nutrition study look like A+B=C, nor is there typically a "magic bullet" solution. A recent Vox article by Julie Belluz details how scurvy was an exception to this rule, as it was cured by adding vitamin C to the diet. However, most of the time the solution isn't so cut and dry.  Today, obesity is wreaking havoc, and illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer have resulted from eating too much, and eating low quality food. However, we can't just say that one thing immediately leads to the other: "Unlike scurvy, these illnesses are much harder to get a handle on," Belluz said. "They don't appear overnight; they develop over a lifetime. And fixing them isn't just a question of adding an occasional orange to someone's diet. It involves looking holistically at diets and other lifestyle behaviors, trying to tease out the risk factors that lead to illness. Nutrition science has to be a lot more imprecise. It's filled with contradictory studies that are each rife with flaws and limitations. The messiness of this field is a big reason why nutrition advice can be confusing."  That messiness is amplified by the fact that it's hard to do accurate, meaningful studies.  "We cannot be locked in cages and fed controlled diets, at least not long enough to learn anything useful. All of this forces studies of diet and health to be largely observational rather than experimental and, therefore, exceptionally vulnerable to biases in design and interpretation," says Dr. Marion Nestle, one of the preeminent voices of nutrition and author of groundbreaking works like Food Politics, What to Eat, and Unsavory Truth In addition to being Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, Nestle has served on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Committee, and spoken at many food-industry sponsored conferences. She knows firsthand the complex relationship between nutrition professionals and food companies, and has continually shed light on what's really going on behind the scenes. One of the first complications with nutrition research is the issue of funding. Like most things in life, money tends to dictate what takes off and what doesn't. As we said before, humans can't be locked up in cages like rats and studied for long periods of time. So any human research studies are often short and very expensive.  Paying for staff, equipment, supplies, lab tests, office visits, or storing tissue and blood samples are just a few of the pricey requirements. In 1993, the Women's Healthy Eating and Living (WHEL) study was granted over $32 million in funding. The goal was to see the impact of fruits and vegetables on breast cancer recurrence. Unfortunately, the study didn't find too many breakthroughs.  Given the pricey costs and uncertain results, you can see why cash-strapped nutrition professionals would be hesitant to swing for the fences. Unfortunately, many nutritionists are also professors responsible for raising part of their salary via funds and grants. Their universities and institutions often speak out of both sides of their mouths, urging them to get funding but not from biased sources. Yet the only ones typically willing to pay up in big amounts are food companies.  You see the dilemma. Potentially compromise your research integrity with bias, or have no studies funded at all. It's a tricky line, and ultimately the heart of what we're trying to get after today: are there ways for nutrition professionals to participate with food industry-funded research without being compromised or selling out? While food industry-funded studies don't always find favorable results for the food companies, more often than not they do. In her book Unsavory Truth, Nestle cites a case in which the maker of aspartame (an artificial sweetener) funded 74 studies about its safety. Unsurprisingly, every study concluded it was safe. However, 90% of independent studies questioned its safety. 

A food company can say they're interested in science all they want, but at the end of the day their goal is to sell their product. That's it. Any kind of research study is often done with the intent to sell their product. In other words, it's about marketing before it's ever about science.

Before we evaluate why such biases exist, it's important to look at how we got here in the first place. How did food companies get their hands in scientific research?  In 1862, the Morrill Act established new universities through government "land grants," as a means of advancing research in different areas. University research contributed to the growing food industry, and the two had a mutually beneficial relationship. For instance, Cornell University had many breakthroughs in dairy science, and even has their own university-run dairy farm/ice cream shop today.  Initially, university food science programs were designed to equip students to partake in the food industry someday, and to advance food industry goals and research. However, the relationship quickly got more complicated once it became about understanding nutritional science, according to Nestle:  "The purpose of nutrition science is to improve public health. But because not all food products promote health, the goals of nutrition science are not necessarily aligned with those of food companies – creating the possibility of conflicted relationships."  That conflict is seen in nutrition-related scientific studies, as many are funded by major food corporations and interest groups.  Sugar is a prime example of this. As advocates of the "Whole 30" diet will tell you, sugar is seemingly in everything we eat – even supposedly "healthy" products. Ketchup has sugar. Yogurts often have added sugar. Even salad dressing does. But the sugar industry doesn't want you to think that's a big deal. Part of what Nestle refers to as the food industry "playbook" is casting doubt on existing science. And beyond that, they want you to "look over there" and paint some other food as the bogeyman. For instance, the sugar industry pushed the idea that saturated fat causes heart disease to distract away from sugar's impact.  And in the 1960s, the Sugar Research Foundation (a lobbying group for the sugar industry) sought to refute possible links between sugar and heart disease. They published their findings in a highly esteemed medical journal, which heavily influenced sugar's perception. However, a recent NPR article detailed how "there's no evidence that the SRF directly edited the manuscript published by the Harvard scientists in 1967, but there is "circumstantial" evidence that the interests of the sugar lobby shaped the conclusions of the review, the researchers say."

Sadly, this is typically the case. While the food company isn't directly writing or conducting the research study, they often influence, persuade, and "edit" the final copy. 

Nestle details how the National Confectioners Association (NCA) funded a study that concluded eating candy has no effect on the weight or health of children. Despite denying that the NCA had any role in the design of the research, Victor Fulgoni, one of the researchers, said in an email "I have finally waded through the comments from the NCA. Attached is my attempt to edit based on their feedback."  The sugar industry isn't the only one using these kinds of tactics. Pick any major industry and there's likely to be some kind of industry-funded study with a favorable conclusion. A 2013 peer-reviewed study on the benefits of canola oil touted that "after 15 years of continuing research on canola oil…evidence shows a number of potential health benefits of canola oil consumption Canola oil can now be regarded as one of the healthiest edible vegetable oils in terms of its biological functions and its ability to aid in reducing disease-related risk factors and improving health."  Scroll a little farther down, and you'll see that the study was funded with support from the  Canola Council of Canada and the U.S. Canola Association. Does that mean they automatically skewed the study or that the research is invalid? Not necessarily. But it isn't something that should be ignored. As Nestle points out in her book, food industries rarely partake in studies they think are going to have unfavorable results. "Researchers don’t think industry funding influences results, but evidence suggests otherwise," Nestle said. "Researchers who take food industry funding do not believe that it affects their study design or interpretation and are outraged at the suggestion. Research, however, shows strong correlations between funding and research outcome.”  The examples go on and on.  This 2015 dairy industry study looked at the impact of high fat dairy and meat on overweight postmenopausal women. It found that the dairy and meat contained higher levels of HDL cholesterol (the "good" kind) from its saturated fat content. Some research suggests that saturated fats can cause cholesterol buildup in your arteries, so the industry had much to gain from this study. Yet again, it was found that the study was completely funded by the Dairy Research Institute and the Danish Dairy Research Foundation.  To throw out one more example, think about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a frequent hot button topic in the food world. It was famously mocked in a 2013 SNL parody commercial, in which a mom serving up HFCS-packed sweets downplays it's impact: "It's made from corn. It's natural enough. And like sugar, it's fine in moderation," she says mockingly. SNL was taking a jab at the producers of corn syrup, who seemingly have an agenda to minimize the scrutiny around it at whatever costs. Sadly, the parody messaging wasn't too far off from reality. HFCS has documented cardiovascular risks in young adults, yet recent studies have tried to push the opposite. Nestle recounts that the Corn Refiners Association has paid researcher James Rippe about $10 million over four years for studies that showed "no special health effects of consuming HFCS."  You may be thinking: That doesn't prove anything. Does industry funding really affect the outcome of a study?  It's a fair question. We can't always say that the research is invalid just because it had industry funding. But it's hard to believe that there isn't some kind of pressure or influence.  An article from Healthine reported that sugar-industry studies consistently found "inconclusive" results around weight gain and obesity:  "A 2013 analysis published in the journal PLoS Medicine showed that studies funded by industry were five times as likely to find that there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude sugar-sweetened beverages like soda are linked to weight gain and obesity." It's important to note that (most of the time) researchers, doctors, and other nutrition professionals don't have bad intentions. Rather, they think they're immune to outside influence.  For instance, doctors courted by prescription drug salesmen claim they don't cave to the wants of the drug industry, yet still end up subconsciously prescribing their drugs. Truth is, we're not very good at avoiding bias – whether intentional or not.  And relentless pressure from the food industry makes it hard for even well-intentioned nutrition professionals to get the truth out. Just like doctors are most often highly educated, ethically-minded professionals not "looking to be bought," nutritionists aren't just con artists trying to kowtow to the food industry.  However, the food industry is a behemoth, made up of multi-billion dollar corporations that employ a vast army of lawyers and lobbyists to get their way. For instance, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association has pushed hard to change the U.S. Dietary Guidelines that suggest eating less meat.  A recent study around financial relationships and research argue that we should weigh a study's credibility by its financial contributions: "We have argued that scientists should take financial relationships into account when evaluating research because financial relationships can impact study design, data analysis and interpretation, and other aspects of scientific investigation."  While the construction and design of research studies may feel out of your control, there are a few things you can do to stay committed to transparency and the truth in the meantime:  If you're reading an article that makes a health claim, click out to referenced studies and scroll down to see if a conflict of interest was reported. If there is, that doesn’t automatically mean that the study is invalid. It may just be a red flag to keep researching and take a myriad of other sources into account. As we mentioned earlier, funding is a complicated issue. Most "healthy" foods do not have the kind of budget or funding as an industry titan like Coca-Cola.  "Companies producing fruits or vegetables do not have that kind of money, nor would they…want to invest in a study so costly, lengthy, and unpredictable," Nestle said, referencing the earlier $32 million WHEL study.  It's not too different from the U.S. Political system. Many viable candidates don't have a chance against the Clintons or Trumps of the world because they simply don't have the money. Instead, the Super PAC funded candidates have media access and tend to control the narrative.  The food industry equivalents to those political power players can afford to drop millions on research, leading to an imbalance in what's being researched. Even the studies we mentioned (sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc.) were trying to minimize the effects of an inherently unhealthy product, rather than, say, identifying health benefits of cruciferous vegetables. 


In a viral TikTok, Brian Johnson sports a backwards cap, grizzly beard, and vein-popping muscles, and carries a hunk of purple-ish colored, uncooked meat over his shoulder. It's a raw cow liver, which the self-dubbed "Liver King" eats daily as part of his "ancestral" diet. Some viewers may squirm as they watch Johnson tear into the animal fat and devour it raw, but Liver King insists that raw meat is the key to longevity and peak performance.  Liver King is one of the many self-proclaimed nutritionists, food bloggers, and social media influencers that produce information from a combination of personal knowledge, anecdotal evidence, and scientific research.  And as with most things on the internet, there's a kernel of truth that doesn't necessarily tell the whole story. For instance, here's how Liver King explained the gist of his diet to GQ. “We cut out all the processed foods, we cut out all the liquid calories, the seed oils. We just went to whole foods, chiefly liver and bone marrow." Cutting out processed foods and replacing them with whole foods has been shown to be beneficial, but is eating solely meat the answer? Liver King points to one school of thought ("eating like our ancestors"), but doesn't take into account the aforementioned complexity of diet.  As of early 2023, Johnson is now getting sued for $25 million by his followers. Why? Johnson concealed he was using $11,000/month in steroids from his fans, creating the illusion his physique was solely because of his ancestral diet. Vani Hari, known as the "Food Babe" is less of an advice-giver and more of an exposer. Hari has pushed for a lot of beneficial change in the food industry, such as getting Chick-Fil-A to use antibiotic-free chickens or helping Chipotle be more transparent with its ingredients. However, she's not a credentialed nutritionist, but rather a consultant with a background in computer science. Does that mean she can't comment on the food industry or push for change? No. That said, we should keep in mind that nutrition influencers have their own biases that aren't always grounded in facts or proven research. Beyond that, most aren't diet professionals. That's not to say you can't glean some helpful information, but be wary of what you take as fact.  Odds are, most people aren't combing through 50 page research studies in order to decide what to eat. We're much more prone to the "quick hit," simple messaging. We depend on journalistic outlets or Youtube videos to break down scientific information and help us (no pun intended) digest it. However, if there's inconsistency in the research itself, we're in turn getting inconsistent information.   This is evident in the battle between meat-based and plant-based activists. A quick Youtube search on the topic yields results like: 
  • "Can You Get Enough Protein on a Vegan Diet?"
  • "Vegans vs. Meat Eaters: What's the Right Diet? 
  • "I Went Vegan For 30 Days: Health Results Shocked Me."
 As we said before, the internet isn't necessarily the gold standard for finding out health information, but this more so illustrates how back-and-forth the topic is. Nutrition science studies at-odds with each other only fuel this social media war further.  One of the biggest things to watch out for is simple, black and white claims from food bloggers or even popular news sources. If you see a headline like "Eggs are No Longer Bad For You," it's probably missing a lot of nuance.  "Whenever I see a study suggesting that a single food (such as pork, oats, or pears), eating pattern (having breakfast), or product (Beef, diet sodas, or chocolate) improves health, I look to see who paid for it," Nestle said. Part of Nestle's skepticism comes from the fact that such cut-and-dry conclusions rarely exist in the nutrition world, and are more common in observing the effects of drugs. We can objectively show that cigarette smoking produces detrimental health effects, as you can quantify the amount of smoking and connect it to corresponding health issues. Having breakfast is much harder to assess. Someone could eat breakfast everyday, but what kind of breakfast is it? Is it full of sugar? Preservatives? Are they incorporating exercise into their lives? Do they eat other meals? Though we should be taking a more holistic approach, certain nutrients get labeled as "bogeymen" and get the entirety of the blame dumped on them. Fat was famously ridiculed back in the 1990s as obesity rates started to rise, leading many products to declare themselves "fat-free." However, the lack of taste from fat was quickly compensated for in the form of sugars, carbs, and other additives.  Beyond that, we can't paint with broad brushstrokes and simply say "fat is bad." Under the umbrella of "fats" includes unsaturated fats, saturated fats, and trans fats. As a recent Harvard publication noted: "Rather than adopting a low-fat diet, it’s more important to focus on eating beneficial “good” fats and avoiding harmful “bad” fats. Fat is an important part of a healthy diet. Choose foods with “good” unsaturated fats, limit foods high in saturated fat, and avoid “bad” trans fat." Unsaturated fats like olive oil have demonstrated benefits like lowering disease by reducing inflammation. And even saturated fat doesn't have to be avoided at all costs. Instead, we can strike the right balance between unsaturated and saturated fats, and avoid trans fats, which have been mostly taken off the market anyway. Nestle recalled that as a student at UC Berkeley, her professor would tell her to run an experiment multiple times if it succeeded on the first time. The goal? To get students to think critically and not fall for simplistic conclusions. Chance occurrences can happen frequently, and science does not make firm statements based on one experiment. If a certain drug reduced inflammation in a rat, you couldn't brand the drug as anti-inflammatory on one case study.  Unfortunately, this happens frequently with reporters and food bloggers. They see a promising result to right about, but fail to take into consideration the following: Not Enough Studies Confirming the Results: As we just said, you need multiple trials to even get close to confirming something. That's why many studies will use words like "suggest"-- the evidence is not necessarily conclusive. Still, that doesn't stop people from using one study to make a blanket statement. Take a 2014 study endorsed by Dr. Oz, that said green coffee beans could improve weight loss even without diet or exercise. "This miracle pill can burn fat fast for anyone who wants to lose weight. This is very exciting and it's breaking news," Oz said. Per the Washington Post, "the study, which was conducted in India but written by researchers from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, initially claimed that people who used the supplement lost 16 percent of their body fat (about about 18 pounds each) with or without diet and exercise." However, the researchers ultimately retracted the study after not finding enough data to support it. That didn't stop media outlets at the time from raving about the "miracle" green coffee bean, though they could've saved a lot of headache by using the rule of thumb that nutrition science is almost never that simplistic.  Biases / Who's Funding It?: As Nestle noted earlier, there are "strong correlations between funding and research outcome." If you scroll down to the bottom of most research articles, you can see who paid for the study. For example, the "Footnotes" section of this study done on cranberry juice's reduction of urinary tract infections, reveals that the study was "Supported by Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. Beverages were provided by Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc." If a news article cites a study without disclosing who funded it, double check for yourself. If it's funded directly by an industry that would benefit, or has no mention of who funded the study, that's cause for further scrutiny.  How the Study Was Conducted: The design of a research study is just as important as who funded it. Certain study designs can lend themselves to data manipulation or hastily made conclusions. The CDC actually published a report on how to know which health care effectiveness research you can trust.  "Research design is too often neglected, and strenuous statistical machinations are then needed to “adjust for” irreconcilable differences between study and control groups," the CDC wrote. In other words, studies often have to bend over backwards to make sense of inexplicable gaps in the research. There's plenty of other flawed ways to design a study as well, including not accounting for "healthy user bias" or "social desirability bias." For instance, people who "self-report" often misrepresent their habits. A question like "how healthy is your diet?" could be interpreted several ways, and because people want to see themselves as healthy, they aren't brutally honest about their diets.  "Research on where the bias comes in says the real problem is in the design of the research question — the way the question gets asked — and the interpretation of results. That’s where the influence tends to show up," Nestle said in an interview with Vox's Julia Belluz.

Mars Inc., makers of some of the most well-known candies (M&M's, Skittles, Twix) has funded over 140 peer-reviewed scientific papers through its scientific arm Mars Symbioscience. Their goal? To show chocolate is heart-healthy due to the presence of flavanols, a micronutrient found in vegetables and fruits like cocoa. 

Research design isn't always maliciously or deceptively crafted, but can be guilty of error by omission. And when they see a positive result, they run with it. Oftentimes, said result looks favorable by comparison, such as saying "less sugar than the leading brands." That doesn't mean it doesn't have sugar – just less than whatever the competition is using, and the difference could be minimal.  "Industry may chose to fund researchers with favorable views about their products, and researchers may consciously or unconsciously tweak the design of their studies or their interpretation of results to arrive at more positive conclusions," Belluz said.  For journalists and nutrition professionals assessing these studies, there shouldn't be conflicts of interest. They should list sponsorship or financial conflicts, as their goal is to uncover the truth, not put a spin on it. Most journalists adhere to the journalistic Code of Ethics, which forbids accepting outside gifts as a means of being influenced.  Still, it happens. In 2016, journalists attended a National Press Foundation conference around food research sponsored by none other than some of the biggest food players in the country: Monsanto, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Pork Board, and the Organic Trade Association.  If journalists or nutrition professionals do attend conferences in which they're likely to be served up industry-favorable information, Nestle recommends limiting how much you accept, if not being cautious about going in the first place. She herself only accepts travel compensation when speaking at these conferences, and donates any payments to research for her university.  While all journalists are supposed to adhere to an ethical code, the problem is that not all bloggers are credentialed journalists. The rise of freelance sites like Medium or the ease it takes to make a blog has turned everyone into a writer, journalist, blogger, and "expert."  There's not a ton of regulation out there when it comes to bloggers, and as we learned from past presidential elections and current political issues, it's tough to know who's legit and who's not.  In a 2019 survey of over 1,300 nutritionists, Facebook was seen as the number one source of where people receive nutrition misinformation, followed closely by blogs and Instagram. A U.S. News report listed the following social media claims that people often fall for:
  • White foods are unhealthy.
  • Caffeinated drinks don't count toward your daily fluid intake.
  • If you take a multivitamin, you don't need fruits and veggies.
  • Dried fruit is bad for you.
 Given that anyone with a phone or a computer can weigh in on the conversation or even publish findings from research, the onus will likely be on you, the consumer, to do digging around published studies, funding, bias, and study design.


If you've taken a stroll through any public market around the world, you know some vendors are more persuasive than others. "You know you need this fish!" "This purse would look great on you!" They only have your attention for a limited amount of time, and make a pitch to get you to buy their product.  Think of shopping at the grocery store the same way. Even though the 16-year-old shelf stocker isn't likely to coerce you into buying something, food companies do their best to subconsciously persuade you via food labels.  You can read more about this in our guide on how to shop at the grocery store, but essentially a grocery store is designed to get you to buy more. The most important items are often in the back, forcing you to walk down aisles and buy products you don't actually need. They make their best sales pitch through packaging by using specific labels and exaggerated health claims.

Think about it: food corporations have entire teams dedicated to understanding human psychology and what will get people to buy more, like color, smell, texture, and taste. They're also aware of the growing health-consciousness in America, and want you to know that they're on board with that too. 

The (failed) Smart Choices Program was an example of this industry-friendly effort. Designed to "designed to help shoppers easily identify smarter food and beverage choices," the Smart Choices Program would give a green checkmark to foods that fit into that category.  Some of the earliest recipients? Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies – notoriously sugary cereals. At the time, the FDA expressed concerns if the program potentially "had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.” By all accounts, it seems that it did.  Though Smart Choices was discontinued, the strategy of putting the most appealing "benefits" on the front and burying harmful ingredients on the back has continued to today.  As a result, we run into buzzwords like "superfood" or "packed with Omega-3s" without really understanding the larger implications on our diet. As Marion Nestle reminds us, no one food makes for a healthy diet. The best diets come from a variety of whole foods and account for calorie intake. In our food labels guide, we break down some of the most frequently misleading claims, like "sugar-free" or "heart healthy." Back in the 1990s, the American Heart Association granted foods a heart check label if they met certain "heart healthy" standards. However, foods like Trix cereal somehow qualified despite having high sugar content, ultra-processed ingredients, and questionable additives. This is just one of many examples of how marketing deception is on full-blast simply through branding and packaging. Problem is, many claims aren't sufficiently regulated and even scientifically unproven, yet still can make bold claims about their product. The USDA, for instance, has a Food and Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) arm that supposedly makes sure grass-fed beef is up to standard. Reports have shown otherwise, as many times the USDA relies on self-reporting or putting accountability in the hands of the food producers. Not a great strategy for transparency.  The $37 billion nutritional supplement industry is full of products making questionable and outrageous claims. Like the "miracle" green coffee bean touted by Dr. Oz, many supplements make outrageous claims, but get away with them because it's not strictly regulated.  In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was intended to create more education around nutritional supplements, but really put power in the hands of supplement makers. Here's how Yale University professor Steven Novella put it:  "Let the supplement industry have free reign to market untested products with unsupported claims, and then we’ll fund reliable studies to arm the public with scientific information so they can make good decisions for themselves. This "experiment" (really just a gift to the supplement industry) has been a dismal failure. The result has been an explosion of the supplement industry flooding the marketplace with useless products and false claims." Prior to DSHEA, the FDA was actually fairly scrutinous with how much they cracked down on nutritional supplements. But due to DSHEA and a manpower-strapped FDA, you can walk into your local grocery store and find a litany of unproven supplements, with benefits like "anti-aging" or "immune system fortifying."  You may be thinking: "I don't fall for those outrageous claims." While most of us don't fall for obviously deceptive claims, there's a bevy of ways these food companies influence our beliefs on a subconscious or subliminal level. We may think we're getting something healthy or making the best possible selection, while still being influenced psychologically.  Food companies will say we have free will at the grocery store, and that the onus is on us to make healthy choices. But we have to wonder how much free will we really have when millions of dollars goes into strategic marketing that plays right into our desires. A 2015 psychology journal found this is especially the case with children:

"Food marketing research shows that child-directed marketing cues have pronounced effects on food preferences and consumption, but are most often placed on products with low nutritional quality."

For example, a box of Cap'n Crunch might look harmless on the outside. A jovial, grandfatherly ship captain smiles eagerly over a bowl of delicious, crunchy treats. No big deal, right? But a closer look reveals that the captain's eyes are looking down to make contact with little shoppers. A Cornell University study actually measured the most popular cereal box characters' eye gazes and found that they're often at direct eye-level with the average child.  "The team measured the eye angles of 57 different kids’ cereal characters in 10 grocery stories across New York and Connecticut, and found that the character’s eyes were cast down at an average angle of 9.6 degrees. By contrast, cereals that were marketed to adults featured spokespeople whose eyes looked almost straight ahead, or looked up at a 0.43 degree angle," said an article from Forbes commenting on the study. Aesthetics and marketing tactics aside, companies use "science" to market both unhealthy and healthy foods. We may roll our eyes at a study authored by Coca-Cola seeking to minimize the impacts of soft drinks on obesity, but what about claims made on seemingly healthy products? POM sells chic-looking bottles of its "wonderful 100% pomegranate juice" for a cool $9.99 per 48 oz. (For reference, a typical 52 oz. bottle of Tropicana orange juice sells for closer to $3.99.) Is the increased price worth it? POM sure believes it is.  POM historically advertised that their juice could reduce the risk of heart disease, among other claims, like reducing prostate cancer risk, and treating erectile dysfunction. However, the FDA requires that any claim about disease prevention or treatment needs FDA approval, which POM hadn't gotten. POM could've said their product "supported health," without needing that approval, yet they decided to go on pushing these bold claims – even going as far to say that POM could help you "cheat death."  However, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) did not find the POM-sponsored research as sufficient enough evidence to make those claims. Still, POM is one of many examples of purportedly "healthy" products trying to sell more products through exaggerated benefits. The playbook they used to push their product is one frequently used by other companies trying to push their health benefits, as they know healthiness sells these days. "POM-sponsored research provides additional examples of how easy it is to design studies to give desired results. According to information in the decision, POM had invested more than $35 million in nearly one hundred studies at forty-four different institutions. At least seventy of its studies were published in peer-reviewed journals."  As the example with POM shows, companies are happy to throw terms at you that really hold no weight. Terms like low-carb or low-fat are frequently emphasized, and can sway us to opt for those products. Carbs and fats are often vilified in our society despite most people not understanding how they fit into a balanced diet. So when you see "low-carb," and "low-fat," you may think you're avoiding the worst culprits out there.


There's always that moment in a James Bond movie his supposed ally turns on him and reveals they've been working for the enemy the whole time. When we hear that nutrition professionals are sponsored by food companies, we may feel the same sense of betrayal. We wish we could just ask "who are you really working for?" and get the whole picture, but nutrition professionals working for food companies doesn't always mean they're up to no good. However, it's important to look at the implications of nutritionists and dietary associations' interaction with food companies. Are there enough safeguards in place to ensure they aren't conflicts of interest?  Nestle and many other nutritionists emphatically say no. In Unsavory Truth, Nestle outlines how nutrition professionals are frequently sponsored by food companies in their research, federal dietary guidelines (meant to educate the public) are tailored to the interests of major corporations, and prominent nutrition societies are in cahoots with Big Food. Let's unpack those, as each situation is nuanced and not as cut-and-dry as it might seem.

Sponsorship from Food Companies

You might be surprised that Coca-Cola, maker of a sugary, artificial beverage, once sponsored research around combating obesity and increasing exercise. The Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), a nonprofit organization researching causes of obesity, was founded in 2014 with heavy support from the soda giant.  The nonprofit was seemingly the brainchild of nutrition researchers, such as the University of Colorado's James Hill, but it's hard to overlook the $20 million endowment Coca-Cola contributed to the project. Moreover, research from New York Times journalist Anahad O'Connor noted that Coca-Cola had been in the process of funding "energy-balance" nutrition research for several years prior. Coca-Cola didn't try to deny its involvement in the research, but sought to justify it. They used a common food industry tactic: shift the blame onto another problem (lack of exercise) to deflect from another equally important one (poor diet). Exercise is crucial, but it isn't the only component of a healthy lifestyle. By maintaining that you could "balance" your consumption of Coke with exercising to reduce obesity, Coca-Cola seems like they're advocating for public good. The problem isn't that Coca-Cola was funding research studies in the first place. It's that they exerted influence despite not controlling the research directly. "They did review manuscripts in advance, craft press releases, and pay travel and dinner expenses as well as those for research. Indeed, executives' relationships to investigators were so close that they regarded the GEBN investigators as members of Coca-Cola's "team," Nestle found. This type of not-so-subtle influence is unfortunately common in the nutrition world. As stated before, nutritionists are left with a tricky predicament: attempt to conduct massive studies with meager funding, or accept contributions from big corporations but be accused of "selling out." It's clear that big corporations lick their chops at the prospect of a positive nutritional endorsement. A five year study by Louisiana State University researcher Peter Katzmarzyk, called The International Study of Childhood Obesity, Lifestyle, and Environment (ISCOLE), set out to evaluate behavioral factors contributing to obesity in young children. Much to the delight of Coca-Cola executives, the researchers didn't look for (and thus find) a correlation between obesity and soda intake. The company took the results and ran with it, again shifting the issue of childhood obesity onto the lack of exercise. Unsurprisingly, ISCOLE was funded by Coca-Cola.  If you've ever heard big claims like "blueberries reduce cancer," there's a good chance the research attached to it was funded by a food company. As stated before, you'll frequently see these hyperbolic health claims attached to comfort foods like chocolate. While eating chocolate in moderation has some supposed benefits, companies will often take an isolated aspect of it (such as the presence of antioxidants) and get you to believe you need to be eating it frequently – nevermind the high sugar or calorie content. To no one's surprise, research claiming that chocolate is a "superfood" has been primarily funded by chocolate-producing companies like Mars, maker of M&Ms, Snickers, and other chocolate candies. Here's the nuance. Just because a food company sponsors research, doesn't mean it'll automatically yield favorable results for the food company. However, there's a strong argument to be made that when a food company is fronting millions of dollars, working in close collaboration with researchers, and editing/consulting on manuscripts, bias can easily seep in.  Most nutrition professionals aren't slimy, self-seeking corporate sellouts, nor are food companies purely evil, brainwashing organizations with no concept of humanity. However, there is often an agenda at play when it comes to food-sponsored research, and it's important for us to be aware of those agendas, funding sources, and research conclusions.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines

We're willing to bet it's been a while (if ever) that you've taken a gander through the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. Perhaps memories of studying the "food pyramid" in 3rd grade come to mind, and you have a general understanding that the government advocates what foods we should be eating more and less of. While the Dietary Guidelines may not feel like a facet of our everyday lives, their construction and implementation has huge implications on our health. Most people would hardly bat an eye at small wording changes in the guidelines, but food companies care tremendously.  The U.S. Dietary Guidelines are "a key resource for policymakers and health professionals," per health.gov, and serve as scientifically-based nutrition advice. It dictates how government-run nutritional programs operate, and there's a huge amount of money to be made or lost depending on what the guidelines say. Also, the guidelines "direct FDA regulations on food, including the information on packaging. For example, the Guidelines inform health claims (whether a food can be advertised as “healthy”) and the information listed on the back of the package (the “Nutrition Facts” panel)," says The Nutrition Coalition.  In response, the food companies go after the Dietary Guidelines, knowing they're permeable and able to be swayed with enough pressure and lobbying. The 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines around sugar are a great example of this.  The guidelines advised against consuming more than 10 percent of calories from added sugars, to which major sugar producers accused them of being agenda-based instead of scientifically minded. This was yet another example of taking unfavorable scientific conclusions and casting doubt on them.  Instead, they'd seek their own scientific conclusions.  The International Life Sciences Institution (ILSI) is a nonprofit claiming to "provide science that improves human health," yet has some troubling ties to corporate sponsors. Their 2016 tax return shows significant contributions from some of the world's largest food producers, such as Mars, Coca-Cola, Mondelez, General Mills, and Nestlé.  Unsurprisingly, ILSI conducted a study in response, essentially concluding that the sugar guidelines were based on "low-quality" evidence and did not meet scientific standards. Still, these findings were produced in a health journal called the Annals of Internal Medicine. On a common sense level, most people get that eating more sugar isn't beneficial for health. But you can see where confusion can easily trickle in, as a supposedly trustworthy medical journal published a study explicitly contradicting sound science. That being said, it isn't usually the case that nutritionists and policymakers are blindly signing off these industry-friendly guidelines. More often than not, the industry strong arms and financially overpowers the committees responsible for authoring the Dietary Guidelines. In other words, the system is set up to fail from the get-go, as the USDA has substantial influence over  And who are the USDA's primary stakeholders? Food producers and manufacturers.  “The current system opens the guidelines up to lobbying and manipulation of data,” said Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, in a recent Time article For example, Nestle has served on the Dietary Guidelines Committee but was told she "could never say ‘eat less meat’ because USDA would not allow it.”  In many senses, nutrition professionals like Nestle are boxed into a corner, subject to "playing politics" and getting caught up in a flawed system. The members on the committee are typically researchers, scientists, and nutrition professionals, but that doesn't make them immune from conflicts of interests. The 2020 committee had members like Barbara Schneeman, a professor at University of California Davis with a track record of being funded by the aforementioned ILSI, the potato industry, and Dannon yogurt. Another member, Wake Forest professor Jamy Ard, has served on the Nestlé advisory board and received substantial payments from them. That doesn't mean that said people are automatically corrupt, but it further reveals how broken the system is. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) has pushed that the USDA "explicitly disclose financial and non-financial biases and conflicts” of committee members. The USDA rejected this suggestion. To the USDA's credit, efforts have been made to diversify the committee, but there's' still a long way to go. As it currently stands, corporate ties and interests seem to continually sneak their way into one of the most important directives on public health.

Professional Nutrition Societies & Big Food

You've probably seen the "American Heart Association" logo on various products, publications, or even food items. It's a big red heart with a flaming torch in the middle. When we see organizations like this, we subconsciously feel a sense of trust. These professional societies have established credibility and are often responsible for overseeing nutritional professionals and putting out helpful advice. Perhaps nothing shocks you by this point, but many of these societies are a bit too cozy with Big Food. Again, there's nuance, and we're not saying that every professional nutrition society is being puppeted by a food corporation. Many nutrition professionals join these societies due to their passion for advancing public health and developing their research.  However, even the most credible-sounding organizations can be subject to food industry influence.  The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is one of the oldest nutrition societies (founded in 1917), and claims on their website that they're "committed to improving the nation's health and advancing the profession of dietetics through research, education and advocacy." Recently, they've come under fire for "their apparent willingness to promote products of questionable health benefit," says Nestle. The Academy claims that their relationship with prominent food companies is to "foster dialogue with the industry," but often that dialogue looks more like explicit influence. While the Academy is pairing down their list of corporate sponsors in response to accusations that they never criticize the food industry, there's still some troubling actions taken by the world's largest organization of nutrition practitioners.  In 2015, the Academy-sponsored "Kids Eat Right" program stamp, (a campaign to "address the national health concern of obesity among our children") was placed on Kraft Singles, a highly processed cheese product that can hardly be considered real cheese.  The Academy deflected, saying that they were merely supporting the Kids Eat Right program, not explicitly endorsing Kraft Singles. Nonetheless, that's exactly what it looked like. Andy Bellatti, founder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, said this to the New York Times: “My jaw just hit the floor and my eyebrows just hit the ceiling,” he said about the academy’s decision to bestow the seal on Singles. “You would think an organization that has come under fire for so many years for its relations with food companies might pick something other than a highly processed cheese product for its first endorsement.” You'd think the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics would learn from this mistake, but Nestle goes on to say that they frequently allow major food companies to exhibit at their annual Food and Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE). There've been pushes by Bellatti and other concerned members to call for sponsorship reform and end troubling corporate ties. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is hardly the only professional nutrition society heavily influenced by the food industry, but they serve as a prominent reminder to dig a little deeper before trusting an organization simply on perceived reputation.


Ultimately our goal is not to turn you into a cynical, skeptical consumer who throws your hands in the air and asks "CAN ANYONE BE TRUSTED?" Rather, the goal is to turn knowledge into action.  As stated before, not every nutritionist is corrupt – clearly there are those like Nestle and Bellatti aiming to reform and improve their fellow colleagues – nor is every food company the bogeyman out to ruin your life. However, there are practical steps you can take to 1.) better navigate nutrition information and 2.) make informed choices about what you eat to improve your overall health.  While reading books like Unsavory Truth or Food Politics is certainly helpful, most of us don't have time to wade through a 300+ page book or dig through the nitty gritty of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. Fortunately, decoding nutrition advice can be fairly simple if you know what to look for:

1) Look For Disclosures / Funding

Unfortunately, it isn't always the norm for nutrition science to mention sponsorships, conflicts of interests, or primary funding source. More often than not, the source is buried or not explicitly stated. However, you should still be able to "follow the money" and consider if a claim is tied to research funded by a food corporation or industry-friendly association.  For example, if you find a claim that says that sugary sodas can be a healthy snack in moderation, press in a little further and see if that claim was funded by a major soft drink producer or industry-funded nonprofit like ILSI.

2) Beware of Single-Product Health Claims

If you see a report that a single food product, supplement, or ingredient can lead to dramatic results, warning lights should come on in your brain. As Nestle states, there may be associations between a food and "lower cholesterol," for instance, but that does not mean there's a single cause and effect. Overall dietary patterns are way more important than single factors when it comes to health. Think about it this way: bicep curls are beneficial to health in the sense that you're exercising, but you wouldn't only do bicep curls as part of a complete exercise regimen. Similarly, a blueberry might have a host of benefits, but popping blueberries everyday isn't likely to make a dramatic effect if the rest of your diet is poor. Watch out for words like "miracle," "breakthrough" or "superfood." Products will often "suggest that" they are beneficial, but that only means that they may or may not help.  The same idea applies when the media or publications recommend avoiding certain nutrients like fat or carbs. How much we eat and what comprises our diet is way more important than single nutrients.  The Mediterranean diet, for instance, contains many beneficial fats from olive oil and fish, but if you see fat as "bad", you may accidentally shy away from foods that are actually helpful.

3) Don't Take Everything At Face Value

In the age of fake news, catfishing, and disinformation, this principle can be applied to many areas of life, but it especially applies when evaluating nutrition advice. There are thousands of so-called experts out there pushing their own spin on dietary counsel. While many know what they're talking about and have a genuine interest to help, always check their credentials (and funding source) before believing an online article or social media post. There are a few ways to tell if an article is hype or actually scientifically based. Health News Review says that if a story seems to rely on a news or press release, it's just a PR campaign, not science. If possible, read the original research versus someone else's summary. While it's more time-consuming, you'll get to the actual facts quicker. Another helpful tool is to evaluate what parts of the research are being used. Is the article you're reading skimming off the top and only using bits of research that fit their narrative? Or simply emphasizing certain results while downplaying others?  As a general rule, be wary of simplistic conclusions. 

4) Vote With Your Fork

As we've talked about with other nutrition blogs, you as the consumer wield way more power than you think. When you minimize unprocessed foods and eat a healthy diet of mostly whole foods, you "cast a vote" for healthier diets and send a message that you aren't participating in products that disparage health or the planet.  But aside from symbolically voting, you can actually vote. Our democratic society functions at its best when we remain informed and speak out against corruption. You can help hold food companies accountable by letting them know how you really feel. At the end of the day, they're dependent on you to buy their products and are attuned to what their customers want. There's myriad cases in which a food giant changed their ingredients, production practices, or product offerings in response to consumer dissatisfaction and petition.  On a government-level, that could look like calling your local congressional representative and asking for more transparency and accountability from Congress. It could look like voting for elected officials without documented track records of cozying up to corporations.  Nestle concludes Unsavory Truth with this: "Let them know your opinions about corporate influence over matters of nutrition and health. As citizens, we need and deserve healthier, more sustainable, and more ethical food system. If we do not demand them, who will?"


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