Science - September 14, 2017

‘We want to do more research on real food’

Tessa Louwerens

Chocolate and red wine are good for you. Or aren’t they? Contradictory messages are not good for consumer confidence in nutrition science. Nor is the fact that some of the funding comes from the industry. So nutrition research needs a makeover, said Professor Edith Feskens and her colleagues recently in the European Journal of Nutrition.

Edith Feskens: ‘The nutrition sciences do not sufficiently address key current issues for society.’ foto Guy Ackermans

In an editorial you and your colleagues expose the mismatch between the nutrition sciences and society. What do you mean?

‘The nutrition sciences do not sufficiently address key current issues for society such as ageing, lifestyle diseases and sustainability. This mismatch means that nutrition science is not applied very much in efforts to improve health and wellbeing. Currently the focus lies on evidence-based research and the results are mainly used to underpin guidelines, health claims and policy. Another factor is the approach to research. The focus now is often on individual ingredients, such as the role of vitamins or minerals. But nutrition is much more complex and it is not just the sum of the separate molecules and chemical reactions.’

The focus is often on individual ingredients, but nutrition is much more complex

Consumers are losing faith in the nutrition sciences. Why is that?

‘The results of nutrition research are only visible after a long time and it is often not clear to consumers what the immediate relevance is. Health effects of eating habits and products are just much harder to measure, so the results can be contradictory. People would rather simply be told what is healthy and what isn’t. Should I or shouldn’t I eat this? But it’s hard to make such hard and fast statements. When nutrition scientists succumb to the temptation to do so, they are contradicted later. This confuses consumers, who then have no idea what to believe. The image of the nutrition sciences also suffers from its private funding. Consumers often have a sceptical attitude to research on topics like the health effects of milk, if it is funded by the dairy industry.’

What do you and your colleagues want to do about it?   

‘Communication with consumers can be improved. We want to become more transparent and explain more clearly that nutrition research just is complex, and so are the results. We also want to interact with more people, through public lectures and forums, for instance. Or by responding through the media more often in order to counter persistent myths. A working party has been set up in the department of Human Nutrition at WUR, which will look into how we can improve our communication and take things into our own hands. Perhaps we can also organize meetings for journalists through the branch associations, to promote better mutual understanding. At present there is a lot of pressure always to do something with research results, and to communicate everything. That also has to do with certain perverse incentives, because you are supposed to market yourself as a scientist: by frequently getting into the media you’ll get funding again for research. But at times it might be more sensible not to approach the media with every publication. By compiling the results over a longer period, you get more reliable conclusions and run less risk of your results being contradicted at a later date.’

We want to explain more clearly that nutrition research is complex, and so are the results.

You and your colleagues argue for a different approach to research. How do you envisage that?

‘In future we would like to focus on research on how people can lead longer and healthier lives. We want to do more research on real food, in the context of daily life and not in the lab. We also want to collaborate more, including with non-academics such as patient and consumer organizations. It is not easy to make that shift as long as nutrition research is largely funded by the industry, which is more interested in products and nutrients than in diets and eating habits. That is mainly because their focus is on supporting health claims for a product.’

If private funding runs out because of this, who is to fund research then?

‘That remains a tricky question. If you apply for a grant from NWO or ZonMW, for example, one of the conditions is that there is some private funding, at least. Dutch policy is geared to knowledge valorisation for the business world. That private funding doesn’t necessarily mean a study isn’t properly conducted or the results are tampered with. A company has nothing to gain from that itself, certainly not established companies with a reputation to keep up. Nor is it always the case that companies are only interested in applied research. There are companies that want to finance research with a long-term vision. A good example of this is the Top Institute Food & Nutrition (TiFN). Companies can invest in the institute, and then it will do research on particular themes. On the basis of the results a company can decide for itself whether it wants to pursue further development towards an application. But the fact is that not much money is made available for curiosity-driven research. Perhaps it will be possible to get some funding for it from patient and consumer organizations. But they have relatively small budgets.’

Re:actions 1

  • Elizabeth Lund

    The costs are indeed a major problem in researching real foods but also time and selecting the best end- point. If we do the sort of large scale long term studies that are needed it may be best to look at many health outcomes but then we have the problem of multiple testing so how to decide which is most meaningful?