Are organic foods healthier for you than conventional foods? How about genetically-modified crops? If you’re not totally sure about the answer to these questions, you’re not alone.
A new survey from the Pew Research Center shows the US public is very divided on issues of food and nutrition. But if you look at a controversial report—which the British Medical Journal just doubled-down on—on the science behind our nutrition guidelines, it’s not too surprising that none of us seems to know what we ought to be eating.
When it comes to organic produce, for example, 55 percent of Americans believe it’s healthier for you, while 41 percent say it’s neither better nor worse than conventional crops, according to the Pew survey, which polled a nationally representative pool of 1,480 US adults. The public is equally split on genetically-modified foods: 48 percent say they’re neither better nor worse for your health than non-GM crops, while 39 percent say they’re worse for you.
If you’re curious, most research has shown that genetically-modified crops are safe to eat and no worse or better for your health than non-GM foods. As for organic foods, the jury is still outon whether they’re actually any healthier for you.
Seventy-three percent of respondents said that they were at least partially concerned with eating healthy and nutritious foods, while 72 percent said healthy eating was “very important” to improving the chances for a long and healthy life. But despite these beliefs, there’s not a lot of consensus on what eating healthy actually means.
With so much confusion, where can the average eater turn to get straight-forward advice on what to put down their gullet? Your doctor probably isn’t much help—GPs don’t actually get any nutrition training in medical school. How about the government? Our tax dollars fund heavily-researched, expansive nutrition guidelines that are updated every five years. These guidelines help determine nutrition labeling, school lunch programs, and research funding. Surely that’s a font of nutritional knowledge, right? Well, maybe not quite.
A controversial investigation published last year in the British Medical Journal criticized the underlying report that serves as the foundation for the US government nutrition guidelines. According to the report, the advisory committee—a group of a dozen or so experts who review the current scientific literature and draft a report that informs the guidelines—didn’t use all of the tools at its disposal to ensure a thorough report. A massive library created by the Department of Agriculture to assist in systematic reviews of scientific literature, for example, wasn’t used for more than 70 percent of the topics the board considered, according to the BMJ report.
After this investigation was published, more than 100 scientists called for a retraction, stating that the report was factually incorrect. On Friday, the British Medical Journalannounced that, after an external, independent review, it’s decided to stand by the report—though it did publish a correction and a clarification on some of the details that were wrong. The reviewers felt the criticism was “within the realm of scientific debate” and didn’t warrant a retraction.
“Healthcare is rife with controversy and the field of nutrition more so than many, characterized as it is by much weak science, polarized opinion, and powerful commercial interests,” said Dr Fiona Godlee, The BMJ’s Editor in chief, in a press release. “But nutrition is perhaps one of the most important and neglected of all health disciplines, traditionally relegated to non-medical nutritionists rather than being, as we believe it deserves to be, a central part of medical training and practice”
So while the report may not have been correct in all of its criticism of the science behind the nutrition guidelines, most of the concerns still stand, and it the controversy surrounding BMJ’s investigation shows that even nutritional scientists can be as divided as the American public.
The one thing that is agreed upon: the old tenants of health eating haven’t changed much over the years, even as the details become more refined. Just try to avoid the processed foods, eat your vegetables, and don’t lose any sleep if you have a slice of bacon once in awhile.
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