Reflecting on Bias in Nutrition Research

This is a guest post from John Coupland, Ph.D. It originally appeared here.

Academic food scientists (like me) are sometimes accused of being entirely in the pocket of the food industry and thus our opinions and expertise are easily dismissed. While we may hotly dismiss these accusations, the issue is complex. I’m interested in the ways my judgment on food-related issues might be clouded, and while I haven’t reached a conclusion, here a few preliminary thoughts.

Although financial interests are the most commonly cited source of corruption, I personally don’t see them as the most important. I do get some money from industry but the amounts involved are small and I must declare any financial interests in any grant proposals or publications. If I lost all industry support I could proceed with my career, if I lost my capacity to act as an independent scholar I could not. As a tenured professor I have the privileged position of being able to make my own judgments about research I pursue. My university might be unhappy with my questions or answers but unless I am demonstrably unproductive there isn’t much they can do about it. An outside agency has even less power to force me to take a position. Almost no one else, industry insider or industry critic, enjoys such license. Academic freedom is so essential to a position I worked for decades to reach that I would react vigorously against anything I see as directly compromising it. More insidious and harder to resist though are the indirect, social influences on judgment.

I am an applied scientist and I work closely with the industry that seeks to apply my research. Indeed, it would be impossible be effective in my role without understanding the practices and constraints of application. However, in working with a group there is a tendency to adopt the values of that group. Say for example, an industry has historically added “Agent X” to their product as a Generally Regarded as Safe antimicrobial but recent blog posts have linked Agent X to skin rashes. Employees in the industry would have a commercial bias leading them to downplay the new claims. They would also have a cognitive bias leading them to reject any suggestion that they are “bad people” who have, even unintentionally, been harming their customers. The latter bias extends to peoplewho work closely with an industry and can cloud the way we think. The consequences of bias are unlikely to be blatant (falsification of data) but even subtle or unconscious bias can still be harmful (seeing lack of evidence for something as evidence against it, taking a different view of risk than that held by an outsider, accepting “everyone knows” as evidence, deciding which questions are worth pursuing).

Bias through “cultural sympathy” is perhaps the most insidious and common way your capacity to think can be limited. Indeed, it is more likely to affect you the more you become committed to a cause. It may be as difficult for a “real food” campaigner to recognize the evidence that a synthetic additive might be safe as it is for a Professor of Food Science to see there might be a problem. I still think science offers the best way to resolve these questions, but to use it effectively we must ruthlessly separate what we know from what we believe.

John Coupland is a Professor of Food Science at Penn State University. His research program is on the physical properties of foods, in particular fats and oils. He teaches undergraduate Food Chemistry and graduate level Food Chemistry and Food Physical Chemistry.

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  • Pallindrome

    As a sort of real food campaigner, I don’t necessarily think that substance X causes problem Y.

    I think that when one eats 20, 30, or 40 chemical substances in an ordinary day (and it’s easy to do that if you eat the regular things that people eat), some of the chemicals, or some of them in combination with each other, are going to do short term or long term (could be decades long) damage.

    Can the smartest, most unbiased, most open minded, tenured food scientist KNOW that chemical X is truly safe. I say he or she can’t.

    What I know is this. When I removed ALL processed foods from my diet, lots and lots of positive changes happened, from no longer feeling cold all the time, to my eyes suddenly being a brighter blue, to no more blackheads, to having more energy.

    So I’m not waiting for information from the labs. Humans were designed to eat real food. ‘Nuff said.

  • Devyn

    This is an interesting perspective, but as the author himself points out, “Almost no one else, industry insider or industry critic, enjoys such license.” It sounds as if he is the exception rather than the rule.

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  • James Cooper

    This is really well put and is an excellent rebuttal to the extreme criticisms scientists often receive.

  • EVIL food scientist

    What happens all the time in industry is that a customer will come in asking for item “X” to be formulated with “all natural, organic, non-gmo, identity preserved, heirloom, (insert buzzword here)” products and we design it for them.

    Then they see the price point that they are at and we start to compromise…