Egg Nutrition Center Blog

Scientific Merit in a World of Media Glitz, Bias and Funding

lab-scientist-stock-photoAs a registered dietitian nutritionist working at ENC, I attend several allied health professional conferences each year and enjoy talking to practitioners while there. With ever-evolving research in the field of nutrition, it can be difficult for practitioners to stay abreast of the latest scientific findings; therefore, much like their clients, they often hear nutrition information in the media and believe it to be true. On occasion, it becomes apparent in conversations with fellow attendees that a critical review of the science behind these topics has been overlooked. At the same time, media and health professionals alike can be quick to discredit a study because of the funding source, rather than on the basis of scientific merit.

Over the past few months, multiple published articles and presentations at scientific and nutrition conferences, such as Experimental Biology and Society of Nutrition Education and Behavior, have brought attention to the misconceptions and realities of industry funding and bias in research. Working daily with credible, talented researchers and allied health professionals, it is frustrating to see the way misinformation and emotion often shroud the topic of industry-funded research. A researcher’s reputation should be built on the quality of his or her work – not the source of funding – because a funding source is just that: a means to fund a study. The integrity of the scientist/science, on the other hand, should be based on the study design, methods and statistical analysis of the research results.

Recent blog posts from other health professionals have addressed this topic as well. For example, last month, a blog from the Calorie Control Council written by registered dietitian Neva Cochrandescribed an industry-funded study and the media’s reaction to the funding source versus what the study actually concluded, highlighting the need for health professionals to thoroughly read studies and remain objective. ENC’s Executive Director Mitch Kanter also authored a Nutrition Close-Up article and blog post examining the perception and credibility of industry-funded research. Like Cochran, Dr. Kanter encouraged health professionals to evaluate the science before jumping to conclusions related to funding source.

For a quick refresher on methods health professionals can use to evaluate sound science, ENC Health Professional Advisor, registered dietitian and WebMD nutrition expert Kathleen Zelman offers great tips, and the International Food Information Council (IFIC) has a checklist for evaluating science. I also suggest setting up searches on a research platform like PubMed to monitor for research as it hits the press. Staying current in the literature will keep your scientific evaluation skills fresh and ensure you have a pulse on the research environment related to your practice. The next time a client comes to you with something from the news, as a health professional, you’ll be able to identify how a study fits within the totality of the literature.

My challenge to health professionals is simple: Step away from the media glitz, and critically evaluate the latest science. It is in our best professional interest to rely not on emotion, but on the evidence.

Author: Anna Shlachter MS, RDN, LDN