When Nutrition Writers Don’t Disclose Conflicts of Interest

Yesterday, I came across an intriguing article in the Star Tribune, one of the major newspapers in the Twin Cities. “How well do you know wheat?” the title read, with a big picture of a bundle of wheat.

The author, Robin Asbell, structured the article in the form of a quiz. She poses nine big questions about a crop that’s received more attention as of late. The introduction of the popular Wheat Belly book by Dr. William Davis (and it’s subsequent spin-offs), and the rising popularity of gluten-free as a topic in blogs, the media, and grocery stores, all seem to contribute to our heightened awareness.

Guidance to cut through the noise is helpful. Nutrition is a complex science with a shaky research base. The nuances often get lost in the popular media. So, in the spirit of consumer awareness, I think the goal of the article – to inform – is a good thing.

But, it’s shouldn’t surprise you that nutrition research and advice isn’t 100% altruistic. Powerful interestswheat create strong headwinds. I’m a cyclist and a runner. Everyone wants a tailwind instead of a headwind. It’s much easier to go in the same direction as the wind, rather than against it.

The biggest issue, in my opinion, is when these interests aren’t disclosed. I might see an article in the local newspaper that gives nutrition advice or takes a particular stance on an issue. Then I go to the byline to see who the author is and where they’re from. It’s unfortunate when these bylines are incomplete, or don’t convey the full extent of the author’s affiliations.

In the case of this recent Star Tribune article on wheat, the author byline states, “Robin Asbell has written six cookbooks, including ‘The New Whole Grains Cookbook’ and ‘Gluten-Free Pasta.’ She teaches cooking in the Twin Cities.”

What the byline doesn’t state (but her website does) is that she’s also a Culinary Advisor to the Whole Grains Council. This is a program of the non-profit organization Oldways, and aims to educate consumers about whole grains. But, the funders of Oldways also include a whose who of large corporate interests, such as General Mills, Cargill, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, McDonalds, and many others.

None of this is disclosed to the reader. Yes, a reader may not read it or even care. But, some will.

Health and nutrition advice are helpful for consumers. But it only tells part of the story. It tells the what, but sometimes leaves out the motivation for the what. If we care about empowering the consumer, we should care about transparency. And if we’re more transparent about affiliations and potential conflicts of interest, we are better able to see beyond the what.

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