Believe it or not, some food companies are using biased research work to increase the sales of their products.
Everyone is interested in knowing how we can live a longer, happier and healthier life. If someone in a white lab coat says something, we immediately start believing in it. We love to follow new rules, but we don’t focus on who made them and why. Such biased research work has been around since the 1960s, but the hoax was probably exposed for the first time by professional researchers in 2015.
Professor Marion Nestle, the nutrition expert from New York University, was the first person to challenge such fake studies in 2015. She exposed more than 100 fake studies and proved that there’s often a link between the sponsor’s interests and results derived from the funded studies.
The New York Times investigation into Coca-Cola’s expenditure on scientific research between 2010 and 2015 exposed the murky world of ‘sponsored research.’
The beverage company registered a non-profit called Global Energy Balance Network. Multiple studies and research work were released in the public domain by this not-for-profit suggesting that people should focus more on exercising instead of cutting calories by reducing food and soft drinks consumption. This remains to be the best example of corporate meddling. The organization had recruited reputable scientists to spread the message and also spent handsomely on social media campaigns to spread results for manipulated studies even faster. But after the New York Times expose, the nonprofit simply started disbanding itself.
“It’s easy to fool people”
Germany-based Journalist Diana Lobl and documentary film-maker Peter Onneken made a documentary – “The Chocolate Diet” in 2015 and proved how easy it is to trick millions of people with fake studies.
As a part of the documentary, Onneken and Lobl conducted a mock clinical trial and derived desired statistics to reach their pre-chosen conclusion regarding how eating chocolate can help in losing weight.
Then, a research institute was registered at the film company’s address, and a press release was issued to newspapers regarding the results of the study. Thanks to the Public Relation companies, they were able to spread their fake study findings everywhere.
Several popular publications from around the world like Cosmopolitan, The Huff Post, The Daily Star, Times of India, etc. published the findings of Lobl’s shoddy research. Even the journal called The International Archives of Medicine published it. Readers probably started believing that chocolate may help in losing weight.
“We were surprised that no one called on the research institute’s phone number to double check the details mentioned in the press release. Not even one publication preferred to cross check the details about the study, its participants, and documentation. When it comes to beverages and food, people prefer to put facts aside and listen to the things that we want to hear,” said Diana Lobl while interacting with journalists.
In India also, we do come across such ‘health studies’ or ‘health tips’ in the form of posters inside shopping malls or even on the coffee machines. Social media is full of such fake studies that promote some or the other product. We interacted with experts to understand how consumers can demand action against such unbelievable claims.
“Ideally, in India, if it’s about fake claims published as a part of an advertisement in newspaper, magazine, social media campaigns, hoarding, packaging material, or printed on promotional material, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) is the right authority to be approached. Consumers can file a complaint against such promotional material online, using ASCI website as well as their Android application. But I think it is not practically feasible for them to cross-check all the claims because all over India, hundreds of ads come out each day. So, we as customers have to be vigilant and remain skeptical about questionable claims. Before believing any of the so-called health-studies, it is important to double check details about the organization that has conducted the research and companies that funded it,” said Pune-based medical practitioner Dr Deepti Pundle.
“Advertising or promotional material and food’s ingredients are two different issues. As far as food ingredients or the quality of the food item is concerned, FSSAI is the right authority to be approached. The FSSAI – Food Safety and Standards Authority of India keeps on testing various food products available in the market. If the complaint is about the quality of packaged food, or food safety violations, customers can file their complaint online via FSSAI’s website. Simultaneously, customers can approach their state’s Commissioner of Food Safety and consumer forums in their city. Consumers can also get products tested from private labs to cross check if the product ‘really’ consists all the ingredients mentioned on the label and are good for the health or not. But, the entire procedure can prove to be a costly affair. The common man may not have time and funds for the same,” said forensic expert who interacted with us on condition of anonymity. Emails sent to FMCG companies for their comments on the issue remain unanswered as of now.
By Nitten Gokhaley
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