You might be wondering.. if nutrition is such a rigorously studied science, why is there still so much conflicting information? Shouldn’t we have this figured out by now? Some people swear by the vegan diet and say that it saved their lives, while other media reports say the exact same thing about eating meat and the carnivore diet. Which one is it? Should we do the Mediterranean diet? Keto? Paleo? Gluten-free? Pescetarian?  The confusion is enough to leave you in a state of paralysis. Not to mention the slew of conflicting news reports around individual products and specific food groups.  Are eggs good for you or do they cause cholesterol issues?  How about blueberries? Are they really “a superfood” that can cure all your health problems, unbeknownst to previous generations? What about the idea of eating everything in moderation? Is it harmless or harmful to have fast food and soda once in a while?  Opposing views seem to surround us every day through different media outlets, but the reason for the confusion is actually quite simple. Conflicting interests. As consumers, our first priority in eating any food should be our health. So it’s natural to want to know about the health benefits related to specific diets, how much we eat and certain food groups. But food companies are not interested in our health, they are interested in primarily how to make the most profit. And since they are motivated by money and greed, it has turned the nutrition industry into one of the most corrupt entities in the entire world. Let’s explore how this impacts mostly everything we read. At the end of the blog, we’ll equip you with some practical tools to safely navigate this confusing landscape.


Without even considering industry influence, nutrition research can be complex on its own. Dr. Marion Nestle, a molecular biologist who is one of the top food researchers in the world, explains in Unsavory Truth: “To find out whether a drug is safe and effective, you give people one medication – a single product – and see what it does in comparison to giving nothing or to taking an alternative drug. Food is more complicated. We eat an enormous variety of foods, and diets also vary enormously.. We cannot be locked in cages and fed controlled diets, at least not long enough to learn anything useful.” In other words, we can't always look at the effects of one nutrient or one food product in isolation. With a singular drug, it is easier to see a clear before and after effect over a period of time. Positive or negative health effects of eating a certain way (i.e. fast food), often are revealed over time. Not to mention that nutrition research also tends to be really expensive.  The combined complexity and cost of the studies naturally create the conditions that make nutrition research vulnerable to manipulation. Let’s say that a researcher is in the midst of designing a study to measure the effect of red meat on the brain. They’ve run up into a big issue – they’re having difficulty receiving the grant they need from the government, foundations and/or universities. A large meat conglomerate catches wind that the researcher is going to conduct the study, and contacts them offering to fund the study.  This is great news for the researcher – all of a sudden their major problem is gone. But immediately, you see the conflict of interest. Why would it benefit a large meat conglomerate to fund a study that might lead to an unfavorable outcome for the product they sell? On the other end, why would the nutrition researcher accept the funding, knowing this would damage the integrity of the study? Nestle explains, “if researchers welcome industry funding, it is surely because government and foundation grants are scarce.” So the researcher is faced with a dilemma – do I not do the study at all or do I accept the funding and pledge to remain unbiased during the entire research process? In fact, many researchers maintain that the funding source does not influence them, one way or another. To which Nestle comments, “Receipts [of funding] – human as we are – believe that gifts and payments from companies have no influence.” What does the data say?

“Studies funded by industry [are] eight times more likely to produce favorable conclusions than those funded by non industry sources,” Nestle reports. She goes on to cite 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. “By March 2015, I was running across so many such studies that I began posting summaries of them, five at a time. I continued posting these research summaries for an entire year. By then, I had collected 168 studies sponsored by food companies.. Of those, 156 reported results favoring the sponsor’s interest; only 12 did not,” Nestle adds. Run the math, and you’ll find that’s a whopping 92.8% for favorable results. How is this possible, if researchers claim they are unable to be influenced?  Psychologists who have studied the relationship between pharmaceutical gifts and physicians have found that this influence happens on an unconscious level. In fact, many times it is not the food companies simply funneling tons of money into the personal bank accounts of researchers.  Nestle explains that “much evidence demonstrates that payments for travel, hotel, meals, meeting registrations and small gifts are all it takes to influence the research results.”  Being in the industry, Nestle herself has pledged to refuse any honoraria, consulting fees or any other direct payments - all things that could lead to manipulation. However corrupt it may seem, a researcher accepting funding is actually one of the more “ethical” scenarios. Sometimes, food companies will set up front groups to conduct a study, so that the general public is unaware that they are pulling the strings behind the scenes. In other scenarios, they’ll contact researchers, offering globs of money to conduct a study for them.  Nestle explains, “they [ask] for studies designed specifically to establish their products’ benefits as a basis for health claims. Such research is so useful for marketing purposes that a great many companies and trade associations eagerly invest in these kinds of studies.” In the end, while the food company isn't directly “writing” or conducting any particular research study, they often influence, persuade, and "edit" the final copy.


Naturally, corrupted nutrition studies become the ammunition food companies need to spread misinformation in the media. As consumers, we often interact with the media without the level of critical thinking that is needed to fend off manipulative health claims. You could make the case we mindlessly consume media the majority of the time, whether that be through social media or a news article. Misinformation gets spread, both intentionally and unintentionally. Intentionally, through talented PR teams leveraging their media connections to ensure that news articles are written on the study. Not to mention partnering up with social media influencers to promote their products, bolstered by the studies. And unintentionally, when other media outlets simply pick it up because they found it to be newsworthy, not being aware that the underlying studies are biased.  The information itself can often take on a life of its own. We depend on media outlets or YouTube videos to break down scientific information and give us the truth. Most recently, we’ve become more and more influenced by short-form video content via platforms like TikTok. Consider the self-proclaimed “Liver King” of TikTok. Brian Johnson has 4.9 million followers. With a grizzly beard, and vein-popping muscles, Johnson often walks around with uncooked meat. 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 on social media, but recently he was exposed as a fraud. Followers sued him for $25 million dollars, after learning that his look was not a result of what he calls “the ancestral diet” but steroids. Nonetheless, he is just one example of thousands in which we receive misinformation in the media. 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.


This all gets particularly dangerous when the marketing arms of food conglomerates start actively trying to convince us that their product is a health-food, when the reality is that it’s anything but. Consider that Mars international, the parent company of M&M’s, once “marketed [their] candy bars – recommending two a day, no less – as a means of increasing blood flow, lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart disease,” Nestle writes. Where did they get this claim? Based on studies that they themselves funded. But to someone who does not know this, or is not thinking critically, they might take the claim at face value. That gives them comfort knowing that they can then eat that candy bar twice a day and (supposedly) get health benefits from it. The dark reality is that many food companies are well-aware their product is terrible for your health and it has ingredients that cause disease, but still proceed to market to us so they can make a sale. Even when we walk into the grocery store, food marketing is at-play simply through where things are strategically placed. In another one of her books, What To Eat, Nestle explains: “Breathtaking amounts of research have gone into designing these places. There are precise reasons why milk is at the back of the store and the center aisles are so long. You are forced to go past thousands of other products on your way to get what you need.” When you pick up a packaged food, companies will also strategically leverage the bogus studies and put the health claims front and center.  The sad reality is that food corporations have entire teams whose job is to successfully manipulate us. Their role is dedicated to understanding human psychology and what will get people to buy more, like color, smell, texture, and taste. If their product is actually healthy for you, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to put advertising behind that product.  Advertising brings awareness.  But far more often this is not the case. Far more often food companies are knowingly spreading disease and performing bogus studies around a product that they’ve infused with harmful chemicals


Perhaps worst of all is how food companies partner with the government to create mass confusion around nutrition. Consider the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which are "a key resource for policymakers and health professionals," per health.gov, and serve as scientifically-based nutrition advice.  The Nutrition Coalition explains that 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)." Food companies often try to influence the guidelines, knowing they're open to manipulation 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, which was met with major pushback from sugar producers. They claimed that they were going to seek their own scientific conclusions on sugar consumption.  The International Life Sciences Institution (ILSI), a nonprofit, conducted a study in response. They concluded that the proposed sugar guidelines were based on "low-quality" evidence and did not meet scientific standards. These findings ended up being published in a health journal called the Annals of Internal Medicine. So who was actually behind the ILSI? Sugar producers. Open up their 2016 tax return and you’ll find that some of the larger financial contributions came from Mars, Coca-Cola, Mondelez, General Mills, and Nestlé, companies with a large vested interest in sugar. “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 Nestle herself has served on the Dietary Guidelines Committee but was told she "could never say ‘eat less meat’ because the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) would not allow it.”  In many senses, nutrition professionals like Nestle are boxed into a corner, subject to "playing politics" in a corrupt system that neglects what is truly important: people’s health.


Just when you thought that lobbying, manipulative marketing and corrupting nutrition studies was enough, the food industry makes sure to cover ALL their bases.  This brings us to the last reason we hear so much conflicting advice: food companies actively try to corrupt nutrition professionals. We’ve already talked about how they target researchers by trying to get them to conduct studies, but the collusion goes further. “Food companies support nutrition societies by helping pay for conference activities, publications, prizes and scholarships. In return, they gain goodwill,” Nestle explains in Unsavory Truth. 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 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 they still frequently allow major food companies to exhibit at their annual Food and Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE). The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is hardly the only professional nutrition society heavily influenced by the food industry. In Nestle’s Unsavory Truth, chapter after chapter she documents the countless amount of societies, “health programs” and nutrition professionals that are influenced by major food companies.


This conversation deeply matters, because food sits at the epicenter of disease and greed, especially in the United States.  Corrupt food companies put products on the market that are causing diseases like cancer, digestive disorders, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, using their own bogus health claims to manipulate us into buying them. So... can anyone be trusted then? Yes! There are plenty of people out there who have pioneered food justice, like Marion Nestle. Knowledge is power and there are practical steps you can take to better navigate the nutrition landscape and make informed decisions to improve your overall health.

Consider your bio individuality

One reason we hear conflicting information about nutrition that we haven’t mentioned yet is bio individuality. In large part, this has nothing to do with the corruption of the food industry. The term “bio individuality” was originally coined by Joshua Rosenthal, the founder and director of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) in New York. He explains, “Bio-individuality means there is not a one-size-fits-all diet, each person is a unique individual with highly individualized nutritional requirements.”  Bio individuality is why one person could claim that going vegan saved their life, while another makes the same claim about the carnivore diet. Meaning, both health claims could be true. It just doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be true for you.  Some of the things that affect how you respond to a particular diet may include your genetics, your stress levels, food intolerances, what you’ve previously been exposed to and what digestive issues you struggle with. If you have the budget, work with a nutritionist to come up with a regimen that works for your body. Otherwise, it may be a trial-and-error approach when it comes to Vegan, Carnivore, Paleo, Keto or anything else that you decide to try out.

Understanding the universal truths

The realities of bio individuality does not mean there aren’t universal truths, however. Despite the outside interference from the food industry, nutrition science has come a long way in the last 100 years. There is science we can follow, that transcends every diet, including:
    1. Avoid Processed Foods: Heavily processed food, which we discuss in a separate blog, is proven to lead to disease.
    2. Always Buy Organic & Non-GMO: Because of growth hormones, poor quality ingredients, antibiotics and pesticides, make sure you always buy foods that are organic and non-GMO.
    3. Reduce Your Sugar Intake: Regardless of the attempts from sugar producers to silence this truth, too much sugar is bad for you. Especially added sugars.
    4. Reduce Your Calories: The United States is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Most of the population is overeating. Science has shown the body does much better on less food (or even no food through periods of fasting) than an excess of food.

Look for disclosures of funding

If you come across a study, do not take it at face value immediately. Look for who funded the study first.  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 find the source through some digging. For example, if you find a claim that says that sugary sodas can be a healthy snack in moderation, see if that claim was funded by a major soft drink producer or industry-funded nonprofit like ILSI.

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. In 2018, Nestle penned an article in The Atlantic, explaining that use of the word “superfood” is simply a marketing tactic. There is no such thing as a superfood. No single food has the ability to fix all your ailments or make up for an otherwise poor diet. With the same principle as above, Nestle writes: “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.”  The reality is that there are many healthy foods to introduce in our diet, like organic blueberries and they should be paired with a whole host of other food groups.  It is here that we see conflicting interests at play again. Our priority is our health, but for food companies, it’s profit. It’s financially beneficial for a meat company to make extravagant claims about meat, or a juice company to claim that drinking juice is the ultimate healing elixir.

Don't take everything at face value

We briefly mentioned this above, but not taking things at face value applies across the spectrum. That means with studies, on social media, with influencers, in the news – everything.  There are thousands of “experts” out there pushing their own spin on nutrition advice. Some may know what they're talking about, but some may not. Always check their credentials (and funding source) before mindlessly believing an online article or social media post. If possible, when it comes to studies, read the original research versus someone else's summary. While this might be more time-consuming, you'll actually get to the actual facts quicker.


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