A recent study that said Diet Coke can help you lose weight was quietly funded by Coca-Cola

The Independent – Sunday 17th January

Declarations of conflicts of interest are a fundamental principle of all scientific research and publications. However, the hubris of corporate power has seen these conflicts of interest march into a growing number of research projects. Don’t like what science might say about your product? Ensure you pay for the research you need. The corruption of the scientific method is laid bare in Bristol University’s recent study.

Bristol University’s findings on the benefits of diet drinks have just been published in the International Journal of Obesity, a peer reviewed journal, which representatives at the University claim make the research robust. The problem is that research journals have also been subject to the same infiltration of corporate influence on their boards. Researchers have realised that there’s often a cash incentive if they can support a desired outcome. So, in startling contradiction to what might seem logical to most people, the Bristol researchers found that diet drinks are better than water at helping you lose weight. To reach this conclusion, they had to wade through over 5,000 studies to find just three which gave any support to this theory.

This is just one of many examples of the increasing influence of industry on scientific research. Corporations regularly influence the scientific and policy-making process by funding research, selecting results that fit their agenda, lobbying the government to reduce the impact of government agencies and regulations, and changing public opinion by downplaying the evidence against them. They breed confusion and uncertainty, even when “[suggesting] that diet drinks are more healthy that drinking water is laughable unscientific nonsense,” as noted by Dr. Aseem Malhotra, advisor to the National Obesity Forum.

Low-fibre diets cause waves of extinction in the gut

The Atlantic – Wednesday 13th January

The more that we learn about the microbiome of our gut, the more we realise what a critical role nutrition plays in health. Research is showing how important fibre is in our diets, not just because it keeps us regular, but also because it feeds our gut microbiome and keeps it healthy, which in turn, keeps us healthy. Part of this is because fibre is diverse and specialised – there are lots of different kinds of fibre produced by lots of different plants, and this means that lots of different microbes feed on them. This diversity is what we need to be healthy.

New research out of Stanford University is showing the ongoing impact of a low-fibre diet which is characteristic of the industrialised world. Researchers found that successive generations of mice on a low-fibre diet eventually completely lost a range of microbes in their gut. Over time, the microbiomes of the mice became less diverse and certain strains of bacteria disappeared. So parents on low-fibre diets pass on a degraded microbiome without important fibre-digesting bacteria.

It is thought that the lack of fibre is linked to inflammation in the gut which is at the root of inflammatory bowel diseases that have been on the rise in recent decades. However, the picture is complicated and the link between a degraded microbiome and health issues resulting from low- fibre intake is not definitive. The microbiome is subject to change over time in the long view, responding to what animals need as they evolve. The issues with our degrading microbiome could have more to do with the pace of change in the modern world, which has seen a radical shift in diets with the rise of processed food. Microbiologist Justin Sonnenburg thinks the problem might lie here, commenting that “If there are times when changes are exceptionally rapid, it might be problematic for host health.”

Majority of teachers in survey know pupils who arrive at school hungry

The Guardian – Friday 15th January

Some 50% of teachers recently surveyed said they knew pupils who regularly arrived at school without having eaten and often did not eat until lunchtime, with resulting problems of tiredness, lack of concentration and class disruption. This, it must be noted, despite the widespread availability of school ‘Breakfast Clubs’ and subsidised school meals. The survey also showed that many of the parents of these children are either too poor to afford to feed their children breakfast, or simply unaware of the importance of eating a good breakfast.

While poverty and benefit cuts are a big part of the problem, parental awareness of the issue is also a consideration: some of the teachers surveyed thought that some parents were either “too busy” or even “too lazy” to feed their children breakfast – both reasons are evidence of negligence whether recognised as such or not. However, overlooking the importance of breakfast is also a measure of our increasing disengagement with food. It’s a meal that some two-thirds of adults in the UK skip, so it’s not surprising that this carries over to children. With the growing awareness of how important good nutrition is to health, we have a responsibility to our younger generation to make sure they learn good eating habits and lead by example.

Seaweed farming may be the prescription for troubled waters

National Geographic – Wednesday 13th January

Welcome to our new superfood – kelp! It’s not just packed with nutrition, it could help us save our seas by sequestering carbon dioxide and it cleans the ocean as well by photosynthesising micronutrients excreted by other sea life, effectively recycling them.

Seaweed farming is a potential saviour for seas like the Gulf of Maine, on the eastern seaboard of the US. The Gulf long supported an active fishing industry based around lobster, crab, shrimp and fish like pollock, plaice and cod. But these stocks have collapsed or are heading for collapse as the waters of the Gulf of Maine warm faster than anywhere else in the world. Fish stocks are finding them too hot and staying away, threatening the livelihood of fishermen, and the rising temperatures will likely be the death knell for lobster, the state’s signature shellfish.

Kelp is a relatively easy crop to grow as there are none of the usual costs in fertilisers, pesticides or irrigation. And its payback in health benefits are truly remarkable. One Gulf of Maine producer is so convinced that he has produced an open source manual for how to grow it, hoping to encourage the growth of a sustainable American product that might save the ailing Maine fishing industry.

The science: Is there anyway to stop people from gorging on sugary drinks?

Grist – Thursday 14th January

There’s a good case to be made for the addictiveness of sugar – it engenders compulsive consumption and the evidence of its impact on our health is mounting. As with smoking several decades ago, we are waking up to the dangers of sugar and finding ways to help people kick the habit. With obesity still on the rise globally, more governments are implementing measures to raise awareness of the health impacts of sugar and deter you from purchasing so much of the food that is loaded with it.

Labelling and taxation are front and centre of this effort, just as they were in the battle to reduce smoking. Mexico, which is among the fattest nations in the world, was the first to introduce a tax on sugary drinks to discourage consumption in 2012 and there is now evidence that it has had an impact, cutting purchases by 6%. While this may not seem much, the reduction is increasing over time and perhaps more significantly, poorer households which tend towards greater rates of obesity are reducing purchases more. Calls in the UK are growing for a sugar tax as the evidence mounts, with Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies recently acknowledging that a sugar tax may be necessary if sugar levels in products don’t come down.

There’s a bigger fight to be had with the food and drinks industry over labelling. The industry is well aware that revealing how much added sugar is in a product will be an eye-opener for consumers, and as with GMOs, they will likely fight listing this with everything they’ve got. In the US, the FDA is proposing the inclusion of “added sugar” as well as naturally occurring sugar on its new Nutrition Facts Label which would be a big step forward for transparency. New research also has looked at the effect of warning labels and found that they can help in reducing what drinks parents purchase for their children. Wouldn’t it be great to see a label on all those super-sized fizzy drinks reading “Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay”?

Photograph: Mike Mozart

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