Eroding trust? New report looks to fight declining confidence in nutrition science

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock/luchschen
©iStock/luchschen
A report outlines a series of recommendations that attempt to address the decline in public trust regarding nutritional science and the expanding variety of information sources.

The report, “Best practices in nutrition science to earn and keep the public's trust,” ​discusses six recommendations by a panel that cover ways to work collaboratively with stakeholders while ensuring transparency and scientific rigour.

“There may be no more important issue facing nutrition scientists today than ensuring that the research that we do and disseminate has the trust of all our stakeholders,”​ said Catherine Field, president of the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), which published the report.

“These stakeholders include those who use our research to define the direction of their own research, make policy decisions such as nutrition recommendations and practice guidelines, and make funding decisions and priorities,” ​she added in an accompanying commentary.

A blue ribbon panel

Formed two years ago the panel, an independent group composed of 11 members, attempts to respond to researchers’ concerns stemming from the range of information sources, some of which were unclear about their motivations, qualifications, or ethical standards.

The report further elaborates on this, identifying these forces as particularly amplified in nutrition sciences where food’s “intimate connection and interest to all individuals and the size of the food and agriculture economy”.

Noted was the rise of professional bloggers, who had thousands of followers. Some may also earn income through product placement and the generation of stories later picked up by social media.

The authors said the volume, multiplicity of sources, frequency and disparities in “messaging”​ made distinguishing objective, accurate information from information that is intentionally biased “overly demanding for nearly all audiences”.

This observation comes after comments made by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) medical director professor Stephen Powis.

Speaking to the BBC​last week, Powis also warned of the "damaging"​ celebrity-endorsed social media ads promoting weight loss aids and detox teas.

"The risks of quick-fix weight loss outweigh the benefits, and advertising these products without a health warning is damaging,”​ he said.

"Highly influential celebrities are letting down the very people who look up to them, by peddling products which are at best ineffective and at worst harmful.”

The recommendations

After an extensive review of peer-reviewed literature concerning various aspects of trust in nutrition science, the panel recommendations include the management of conflicts of interest (COIs) in partnerships and activities, uphold the standards for evidence-based conclusions in publications and the maintenance of effective dialogue between ASN, the public, and the media.

The remaining three recommendations include developing guidelines for conducting nutrition research funded by entities with COIs, perform independent audits of adherence and the disclosure of all COIs of financial and other sources.

“Public trust in nutrition science is the foundation on which nutrition and health progress is based, including sound public health,”​ the report concluded. “We propose best practices to support and enhance public trust.

“We hope our report and recommendations will be helpful to the ASN and other food and nutrition organisations, the public, researchers, food and nutrition professionals, companies, and government officials in earning and keeping the public’s trust.”

Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

Published online: doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqy337

“Best practices in nutrition science to earn and keep the public's trust.”

Authors: Cutberto Garza, Patrick Stover, Sarah Ohlhorst, Martha Field, Robert Steinbrook, Sylvia Rowe, Catherine Woteki, Eric Campbell

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