A food scientist responds to the dark side of Unsavory Truth

When someone proclaims “The Truth” about any topic, they usually unveil a villain who is trying to obscure the message. Last week I described some points of agreement between Marion Nestle and me in Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat. This week I describe points of strong disagreement between the two of us. It should come as no surprise that the villain in Unsavory Truth is not limited to the venal food industry. Rather, it is aided and abetted by the entire profession of food science. Below I respond to Nestle’s own words in bold

“The purpose of food science is to support the food industry by training students for jobs in the industry and by conducting research to support industry goals and practices.” It is at this point that Unsavory Truth gets ugly. I think such stereotyping of a university major and whole profession while impugning their motivation is disheartening. It becomes clear now who is the enemy of Truth in the author’s mind. Have all food scientists sold their souls to the evil food industry for profit and gain? Are they merely mad scientists who brew up chemicals in industrial cauldrons to the detriment of the American public? Is there no room for an alternate viewpoint? Is dietary science closed to future inquiry? Few pages go by in this book without a condemnation of damage foisted upon the public by the money spent by the food industry.

chemical structure of aspartame
Aspartame–artificial sweetener–toxic or safe?

Although many food scientists do go into the food industry after graduation, others work in government to ensure the safety of the food supply. Many food scientists in industry work in quality control to ensure that processed foods are safe when they leave the manufacturing plant. Although there are still outbreaks, the track record of these incidents in 2018 show that whole foods are more likely to lead to an outbreak than processed products. Food scientists are now being recruited by distributors of fresh produce to help improve the safety record of these perishable foods. And, who do you think cleans up the labels of food products as they replace chemical additives that are difficult to pronounce in ingredient statements with more familiar ones that are more chemically complex but somehow less frightening?

The description of the discipline as stated in Food Science is “the application of basic sciences and engineering to study the physical, chemical, and biochemical nature of foods and the principles of food processing.” I admit to being personally offended by Nestle’s characterization of a profession that was my father’s and later became mine. My work in the field resulted in over 100 peer-reviewed articles, most of which involved the handling, quality and physiology of fresh fruits and vegetables. None of these articles advocated consumption of processed foods. In his book, The Bad Food Bible, Aaron Carroll describes his experiences with the harassment he experienced when he said nice things about processed food in a food column. They demanded evidence that he was not on the payroll of the food industry. Last time I checked Unsavory Truth was #92,620 on Amazon best seller list; In Defense of Processed Food was #936,114. What does that tell us about who is skewing what? Nestle clearly expresses the more popular view, but does her perspective represent absolute truth? Is anyone who defends processed food a purveyor of fake news?

“ILSI describes itself as an independent scientific think tank, but it was created and is largely funded by the food industry. That makes it, by definition, a front group.” The International Life Science Institute (ILSI) actually describes itself on its website as “a nonprofit, worldwide organization whose mission is to provide science that improves human health and well-being and safeguards the environment.” It is my understanding that the organization was created by concerned food scientists from both academe and industry. Daryl Lund has led a group to develop guidelines to avoid conflicts of interest within ILSI and similar organizations. Nestle claims that such efforts are a sham merely skewing scientific research to favor the food industry. In the interest of full disclosure Lund is a friend of mine. He is a prominent food scientist who served as President of the Institute of Food Technologists as well as Dean of Agricultural and Natural Resources at Rutgers University and Dean of Agricultural and Life Sciences at Cornell University. I have no direct connection with ILSI, but I believe that its work is above board and of scientific merit.

chemical structure of Vitamin E
Alpha-tocopherol–toxic or safe?

I understand that we must be very careful of the overpowering influence that money can have in every aspect of our lives. Money can corrupt a process, but not all money corrupts. To outright reject an idea because it is supported by a moneyed interest could be dangerous. I wish to pursue two trains of thought in the next few paragraphs:

  1. science is a directional enterprise, NOT an arbiter of truth, and
  2. although the largest employer of food scientists is the food industry, food companies are primarily ruled by Marketing Departments and NOT by food scientists, thus, food scientists are sentient beings and not automatons bred by Big Food.

Science is directional. I describe in detail the lessons I learned as a practicing scientist in obtaining grant funding and publishing, not perishing, in an academic position in Becoming a Food Scientist. What I mean by directional is that the scientist begins with the end in mind. Experiments are not designed with the idea that anything could happen and that we will just see how the results come out. For example, if a team of scientists wants to determine the effects of a food additive on health, it would need to raise funds to conduct the research. The team might find some startup funds from their university or expand work on a current grant to collect some preliminary data for the proposal to the granting agency. To go to a government source of a major grant, they need to have a hypothesis or clear objective to demonstrate a detrimental effect of the additive. Without a clear action plan and convincing evidence to support that hypothesis or objective, there would be no funding. Thus, members of the team have a vested interest in demonstrating a negative health outcome.

Likewise, other scientists might be interested in challenging the practical implications of the observed negative effect of the same additive by studying its role as a preservative in preventing food illness. Such a team might find it difficult to obtain funding from a government source and meet with better reception from an organization like ILSI. The research direction and thus basic question would be different and the results could lead to a different conclusion. It doesn’t mean that either study is wrong, but just that they are viewing the same additive from a different direction to provide a broader view.

One of the most contentious incidental food additives—bisphenol A—has been surrounded by such conflicting studies. The FDA stepped in and designed a comprehensive study called Consortium Linking Academic and Regulatory Insights on BPA Toxicity or CLARITY-BPA. The multiyear study was to resolve the issue. Based on the results reported to this point FDA has basically declared BPA safe, while  NIH has some reservations looking at the same data, and NPR points out potential problems with the research methodology. A final report is expected later this year.

Food scientists are not robots controlled by the food industry. Food scientists have a different way of looking at food than normal people or nutritionists like Nestle. That does not necessarily make us right and Nestle wrong, but neither should she claim to be the holder of absolute Truth because she takes no money from the food industry. Science, particularly the interaction between food and health, is very complex and resistant to simple, straight-forward answers. Michael Pollan’s Rule #6 from Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, “Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients” has been said so many times by so many people it is accepted as Truth. It is so accepted that any food containing more than five ingredients, particularly if any are difficult to pronounce, are now being called ultraprocessed. Does this rule represent existential Truth, the Big Lie, or somewhere in between?

My personal beliefs as a food scientist that I suspect many food scientists share include:

  • Food is a nutrient delivery system that is best administered through a balanced diet.
  • Just as we can damage our health by too few nutrients we can damage it by an imbalance of nutrients particularly consuming too much of a single nutrient.
  • Food safety is most threatened by harmful microbes and NOT by food additives.
  • All food is made up of chemicals, our bodies convert these chemicals to usable materials, and deliver them to the appropriate cells where they are needed.
  • Obesity is primarily the result of the accumulation of too many calories from our food not counterbalanced by the number of calories burned for energy.
  • Food is best when it is consumed within a cultural context of pleasure and well-being.
  • Food processing functions to keep foods safe, prevent food waste, preserve nutrients and provide food to the consumer at a reasonable price.
chemical structure of monosodium glutamate
monosodium glutamate–toxic or safe?

Bottom line is that we must be very careful not to judge issues on what we want to believe but on their merits. Food scientists view foods from a very different perspective than nutritionists. Diversity in perspectives is a positive factor in helping science come closer to the truth. In the next two weeks I will turn this blog over to nutritionists with different viewpoints from mine to offer their perspective on processed food.

By the way I am engaged in a discussion with Jeremy Cherfus at the Eat This Newsletter about ultra-processed foods.

Next week: Processed food from a classical nutrition point of view

Structures of food chemicals pictured above can all be toxic at some levels and safe at others. I am a frequent consumer of all three

  • aspartame in my diet sodas to enjoy a refreshing drink while limiting my sugar intake,
  • alpha-tocopherol which is the chemical name for Vitamin E and the most effective antioxidant in the body which can turn into toxic free radicals at higher levels, and
  • monosodium glutamate or MSG which has greatly enhanced the flavor of my tuna-fish sandwiches for more than 60 years.

I believe all three molecules are safe at the doses I consume them.

3 thoughts on “A food scientist responds to the dark side of Unsavory Truth

    1. Thank you Jordan. This article certainly places the whole concept of ultra-processed food in a new context. I plan to read the original article and see what foods were used in each diet. I will have a special post on this article within the next week.

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