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Welcome to a “miracle year”

I’m told it’s going to be a miracle year, if not a miracle decade.

I’m hoping it will be for nutrition research – and health/medical research in general.

Heading into the new decade, we are pretty much drowning in a sea of “evidence” that we don’t know whether to trust or not. We’re crippled by the spurious idea that, not only can there be a “gold standard” of evidence – as if there is some kind of sliding scale of truth – but that the RCT is it. And we’re constantly tormented by a stream of epidemiological claptrap and the desperately misleading “studies of studies”, aka meta-analyses.

“It is difficult to face the fact that so much of the medical literature is published by people who are not trained in science….” as Prof Richard Feinman, PhD, professor of cell biology at State University of New York Downstate Medical Centre, puts it in Nutrition in Crisis: flawed studies, misleading advice, and the real science of human metabolism (Chelsea Green, 2019).

In this issue we’ve got some classic examples of “science” gone wrong – starting on our news pages (p8) where we pick apart the “discovery” of a link between niacin and schizophrenia – something we quacks have known about since the 1950s.

In other stories (p38), we find out that levels of the hormone-disrupting BPA have been underestimated by as much as 44% due to flawed measurements – the same ones that government and industry agencies have used to convince us that BPA is present at such low levels it can’t possibly be a problem. Well, it is. “This study raises serious concerns about whether we’ve been careful enough about the safety of this chemical…the conclusions federal agencies have come to about how to regulate BPA may have been based on inaccurate measurements”, says geneticist Prof Patricia Hunt of Washington State University.

We then find out (p7) that blood samples from healthy people supplied by blood banks to researchers are universally contaminated with caffeine and drug residues.

Even our beloved probiotics are not immune from bad science, it seems. While we’ve got a first-class review by Dr Ashton Harper of the evidence for probiotics in IBS (p20), we’ve also been mortified to discover that researchers have missed a substantial biological variable (p40). Dr Marie Lewis, lecturer in gut immunology and microbiology at the University of Reading tells us: “Currently, studies looking at the effectiveness of dietary supplements on the immune system assume that the same thing happens in boys and girls. But we show this is not the case and that sex may be influencing data on the effectiveness of probiotics and prebiotics in infanthood”.

There is SOME good news to start the year. A band of scientists have finally found a direct way to measure some important food components – hopefully starting a trend that will lead to researchers abandoning dietary recall questionnaires in favour of something, well, scientific (p6).

“If we can’t objectively measure what people eat, we can’t give evidence-based recommendations. We now know that previous approaches to measure dietary flavanols intake are simply not accurate”, says Prof Gunter Kuhnle, University of Reading (where it all seems to be happening).

So onwards and upwards from there, let’s hope…at least we now know a lot of what’s wrong. We can use the next decade to put it right.

Simon Martin

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