Science - December 3, 2009

Beer, anyone?

The Knowledge Institute for Beer aims to conduct scientific research into health conscious consumption of beer. The institute brought out its first publicity material this fall: the beer guide. The catchy little folder shows at one glance information about the number of calories in beer, other alcoholic drinks and the snacks which go with beer. The chairman of the institute is Frans Kok, professor of the Human Nutrition Division. That this nutrition professor has taken on this role has ruffled some feathers. 'Conflict of interests', says Martijn Katan, nutrition sciences professor at the VU Amsterdam.

Katan versus Kok
Martijn Katan:
'The involvement of scientists in the Knowledge Institute for Beer allows commercial interests to increase their hold on science. Wageningen will soon be the first to put its reputation on the line.'

'It's a pity that Kok is involved in the Knowledge Institute for Beer. I don't doubt his integrity, but Heineken isn't paying out of philanthropy. It just wants to sell more beer. Wageningen has also participated in TNO's research into the health effects of alcohol, with subsidies from the alcohol industry. That has resulted in some twenty publications, not even one of which mentions the negative effects of alcohol. As a scientist, you should not let industry call the shots. Lack of knowledge about beer isn't a health issue in urgent need of attention. It's just interesting for commercial and marketing purposes.
Breast cancer
'Alcohol causes many illnesses. Just one glass of beer a day increases the chances of getting breast cancer. I also don't support the notion that moderate drinking is healthy. If you want to lessen the chances of getting a heart attack, look to other ways. It's better to exercise. Why should you recommend a damaging stuff such as alcohol if there are safer alternatives? Women often do not know that alcohol increases the chances of getting breast cancer. The knowledge institute creates an atmosphere in which drinking becomes acceptable, in the sense that 'the professor says it's good, so we'll have another one'. Alcohol intake has its spikes shaved off in this way. I'm not against drinking; I too drink daily, but a scientist shouldn't go about saying that it's healthy.'
Pay
'The involvement of scientists in the Knowledge Institute for Beer increases the hold of the commercial sector on the world of science. As a result, scepticism for the universities would grow, as in: they in fact let industry be their paymaster. The authority of the world of science would be undermined. On the other hand, society itself has created the situation whereby scientists are forced into the market to sell themselves. I'm very concerned that Wageningen will be the first to put its reputation on the line.'
Frans Kok:
'I say what I think, whether the industry likes it or not. It's my duty to use proof to advise on the facts and the myths about food, including alcohol.
'I don't think that research sponsored by industry is necessarily wrong, even though there had been some bad experiences with the pharmaceutical industry. You do have to set conditions and be selective. We won't join forces, for example, with the tobacco industry. The government stimulates cooperation between industry and universities; investments using public funds need to produce results. You have to observe the rules of the game. I keep to the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Scientific Practices. Its five pillars are: caution, responsibility, manageability, impartiality and independence.
'The industry looks to me regarding certain issues. I tell them what I think, whether they like what I say or not. My task is to use the most recent scientific insights to give advice on facts or myths about food. In so doing, we also consider the negative aspects. My role at the Knowledge Institute for Beer is not to advertise beer, but to give it the position it deserves. The aim is to make sound scientific knowledge about sensible consumption of beer accessible and applicable. Dieticians and physicians can pick up from here. The management comprises mostly scientists. We will only endorse scientific information releases of the institute if these are comprehensive. Adverse research results will also be communicated.'
Moderate drinking
'The Health Council, in its Nutrition Guidelines 2006, has issued recommendations for food in relation to health, from a scientific point of view. In the recommendation about alcohol intake, it is written: 'if you consume alcohol, limit this to a maximum of two glasses a day for men and a glass a day for women.' The knowledge institute works within these guidelines and does not encourage people to drink more. I think that there is solid evidence that moderate drinking is healthy. This is shown in current literature studies. If Katan has other references which prove otherwise, I would like to know about these. I would be the first to bring them up. That would be my social responsibility.
'Two thirds of food research in Wageningen gets its funds from third party financing, such as the EU, the government, house-to-house collections and the industry. In our forty years of existence, there haven't been any cases in which a contracting authority had influenced the conclusions and interpretations of data. There had been cases where the results were adverse for the industry, and yet were subsequently given solid coverage in publications. In such cases, it won't be illogical if the industry pulls out.
There are also drawbacks in cooperation with industry, such as the influence of the contracting authority on the question: 'What are we going to research into?' In practice, this excludes certain issues from being studied. It is a great pity when important research issues which aren't advantageous for the industry don't get a chance to be looked into. Like Katan, I feel that much more resources should be made available for these, for example via the NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research).

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