Friday, November 25, 2016

I Can't Believe It's Not Science: Harvard Sat Fat Study as Suspect as Unilever 'Butter'

Like most dietary health devotees, one of the first things the Loquacious Lowcarbivore does when we see new headlines about the latest nutrition research is check out the funding sources of the study on which the "findings' are based.

Buried at the bottom of the study
we found that three of the researchers
work for Unilever
Sure enough, the latest sat fat hit piece from Harvard School of Public Health researchers published in the Nov. 23, 2016, BMJ was funded partly by (drumroll please) . . .  Unilever!

Surely it is just a coincidence the researchers found associations in longitudinal data in favor of the maker of Country Crock, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and other products that stand to benefit from the study's findings. For instance, the study suggests heart disease risk is reduced by subbing real butter for vegetable oil spread (which Unilever just happens to sell).

Without getting into statistical or scientific minutiae, on a macro level we can all agree that  longitudinal studies based on self-reported data suggest associations -- not cause and effect -- and can be corrupted by confounding variables. Such extrapolative research is also vulnerable to study design bias and is not as scientifically rigorous or definitive as a randomized control trial.

Most news reports, however, do not bother to make such boring distinctions and can be counted on to tout as fact whatever Harvard researchers say.
CUTTING back even slightly on butter, cheese and red meat is enough to ward off heart disease, a major study shows.

Some of the fake butter spreads
and veg oil products
made by Unilever
Scientists say ditching one per cent of daily saturated fat can cut risk by eight per cent. -- The Sun
Swapping butter and meat for olive oil and fish does cut the risk of heart disease, a study has found.
Switching 1 per cent of your calorie intake from saturated fat to vegetables, polyunsaturated fats or wholegrain carbohydrates reduces the chances of heart disease by up to 8 per cent, a Harvard team concluded. -- The Times
New research shows that replacing just 1% of daily calorie intake from saturated fat with other sources of energy - such as whole grain carbohydrates or polyunsaturated fats - cuts the risk of heart disease by 6 to 8%.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, is the latest to throw its weight behind official NHS recommendations which say saturated fat should be limited in order to protect against heart disease. -- The Daily Mail
Not surprisingly, none of these glorified press releases news reports mentioned anything about Unilever's financial involvement possibly influencing the findings in the company's favor. Nor do they make a distinction about different types of nutritional studies and the relative reliability of each.

As George Henderson and Grant Schofield point out in their Rapid Response to the BMJ article, "Because epidemiological research from high-profile institutions will tend to be reported in an "over-exaggerated" fashion and thus can have unintended consequences, methods need to be rigourous enough to minimise both type 1 and type 2 errors, and be interpreted strictly in the light of higher quality experimental evidence into the same questions."

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