News - September 29, 2011

The rights and wrongs of Joris Driepinter

Last November, the science information department issued a press release. It appeared in the Gelderlander newspaper and a number of websites. Apart from that nothing really happened. Eleven months later that same report is at the centre of a major controversy. Five questions about why that is.

What does the controversial press release say exactly?
It describes a study showing a link between drinking one to three glasses of milk a day and a reduction in cardiovascular diseases. Apparently the risk of disease is reduced by about 6 percent for every glass drunk.
And that is based on...?
The original study by the Human Nutrition group is uncontroversial. It is a so-called meta-analysis in which researchers collect all the relevant publications to get as reliable an answer as possible. In this case, researcher Sabita Soedamah-Muthu searched 5000 papers and found 17 relevant, sound experiments. Looking at these studies, she found no significant relationship between milk consumption and strokes, early death or heart attacks, but she did find a link with cardiovascular diseases in general.
So why all the commotion?
The press release heading said ‘Joris Driepinter was right after all'. This refers to an old cartoon figure used in the milk industry's ads. Joris used to advise the Dutch to drink three pints of milk every day. The Wakker Dier foundation thought this headline was turning the university into an advertising agency, so they used it for a test case before the Advertising Code Committee (see the interview with Sjoerd van de Wouw). A row was born.
Is there also criticism of the press release content?
Two weeks after Wakker Dier, the American nutritional researcher Walter Willett criticized the press release in the Volkskrant newspaper. This is ironic as Willett is a co-author of the original paper and has an honorary doctorate from Wageningen UR. His criticism: the researchers found only a ‘weak and unimportant relationship' between dairy products and cardiovascular diseases. In the meantime there is a lot of evidence for the damaging effects of milk, such as a link with prostate cancer. Willett, who has long been critical of dairy products, says this is ‘a misrepresentation'.
What has Resource to do with all this?
The article about the original study, including the headline, was written by one of Resource's editors. Sometimes the science information department will edit one of our articles with our permission and issue it as a press release.