Q&A: How nutrition professionals can take an evidence-based approach to debunking food myths
This post is sponsored by the Ajinomoto Group.
There is a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to food and nutrition, and many people can easily be swayed by opinions and false facts that lead them to make misguided choices. In this interview, food, nutrition and media communication consultant Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RDN, LD, discusses what leads people to believe myths about certain foods and how nutrition professionals can use scientific evidence to combat misinformation.
How can myths and personal bias cloud the interpretation of scientific evidence and lead to misinformation?
Even though we all have our own personal opinions, nutrition is a science, not an opinion. Bias often comes into play when talking about controversial topics or when there is insufficient data, when emotions take over and misinformation flies in the face of evidence. Confirmation bias describes searching for information, or “cherry picking” data, that is consistent with one’s beliefs. If our views are not in line with the evidence, it is our responsibility to make an objective, unemotional analysis of the facts and clearly communicate the weight of the evidence or lack thereof when there is limited evidence.
How can nutrition professionals use the weight of scientific evidence to debunk myths?
One study in isolation does not change public health advice, but unfortunately, sometimes it can change public perception. Food and nutrition are vital to good health, but myths can perpetuate unhealthy behaviors and affect health and wellness. It is our professional responsibility to communicate the body of evidence in context and help people understand how it can support their personal goals. Before doing so, we must appreciate where that person is coming from and seek common ground to help them be more open minded to our advice. Advice delivered with warmth, a caring demeanor and compassion is most likely to be heard.
What are some hot topics in food and nutrition that are generating myths or misconceptions, and what should nutrition experts keep in mind when evaluating the evidence?
One example is the resistance to genetically modified organisms, despite the fact that they have been in our food supply for more than 20 years and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has found “no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered crops and conventionally bred crops.”1 Another example is monosodium glutamate (MSG), a common household seasoning that has been used in food for more than 100 years. Despite a conclusive body of evidence showing that MSG is safe, many people still associate it with various symptoms, although these have not been consistently demonstrated in placebo-controlled, double-blind trials.2 Fight misinformation by staying up to date, reading the literature -- not just the press release, looking critically at the prevailing body of research and consulting authoritative public health institutions.
Why is it that some people still choose to believe myths and misperceptions about certain foods despite the scientific evidence debunking these claims?
When people choose to believe myths in spite of the science, it’s often rooted in emotional or psychological reasons. To use MSG as an example again, consider a recent survey from researchers at Behavioralize, which was supported by Ajinomoto, to better understand why some people avoid MSG despite evidence that it is safe. The findings suggest people’s avoidance of MSG is rooted in emotions, feelings and misinformation found on the internet that they believe to be true3. Another interesting finding is that people who avoid MSG do not have a factual understanding of the ingredient, but they believe they do. Scientists refer to this as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.” It could also be that it sounds like a chemical and its name creates “chemophobia.” We must put the issue into context and help people understand the science while also keeping in mind the emotional weight that comes with people’s decisions and beliefs.
What are your thoughts on industry-funded research? What benefit does it provide to the body of scientific evidence and the industry?
All research should be judged on the quality of the study, regardless of the source of funding. Industry-funded research, like all research, is obliged to transparency and disclosure. When funding is not reported, the quality rating of the research is more likely to be diminished. Multiple studies have shown that there is no significant difference in favorable conclusions or quality of research between industry-sponsored studies and studies that are not industry-funded4, 5. For instance, a study looking at research by the dairy industry found no significant differences between industry- and non-industry-funded studies6. In order to garner trust, we need to promote sound science in context and analyze the research with a critical eye. As RDNs, it is also our ethical responsibility to uphold the code of ethics of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
How should professionals communicate advice when the science is emerging?
There is very little black and white in nutrition. Nutrition research is often in the "gray" zone. Evidence-based guidelines and systematic reviews are considered the best available sources, but when these do not exist, such as the case with emerging science, then primary research or expert consensus is the next best available. Form a judgment knowing there is uncertainty, using the best tools to interpret and communicate the latest science.
When it comes to emerging research, be clear that the research is emerging, put it into context and always remember “do no harm.” It’s ok to convey uncertainty and, in fact, you’re more likely to build trust this way. Our job is to offer the prevailing expert consensus over confusion, and stand united as nutrition experts, serving as a balanced and level-headed information hub, especially in a time of fake facts and harmful trends.
Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RDN, LD is a food, nutrition and media communication consultant and owner of No Nonsense Nutrition, LLC. She recently retired as the director of nutrition for WebMD, where she helped build a state-of-the-art food, diet and nutrition portal. She currently serves as a contributing editor to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Food & Nutrition Magazine, is a member of the board of directors of the True Health Initiative, Inc. and Nutrition4Kids’ medical advisory board, and is a nutrition expert for the Ajinomoto Group.
3. Behavioralize. 2020. Psychological underpinnings of monosodium glutamate (MSG) avoidance: Why is MSG shunned when experts say it’s safe?
4. Chartres N, Fabbri A, Bero LA. Association of Industry Sponsorship With Outcomes of Nutrition Studies: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Dec 1;176(12):1769-1777. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.6721. PMID: 27802480
6. Mishali M, Kisner M, Avrech T. Funding sources and outcomes of dairy consumption research – A meta-analysis of cohort studies: The case of type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Int Dairy J. 2019 Aug;95:65-70. doi.org/10.1016/j.idairyj.2019.02.019