​Truth in Advertising

Gary C. Bizzo  |


I’m a baby boomer and have been through a number of revolutionary changes to my diet and health that scientists urged were based on scientific facts. Imagine my chagrin when I found out that scientists were either paid by the companies whose products they recommended and/or those scientists paid statisticians to change or modify results.

I think people today don’t accept anything without contemplation and research. Start-ups must be diligent in providing the facts to the public and make sure they don’t provide hyperbole in the statements they make to the public. They will be found out! Bioethics are calling out the manufacturers of the ‘50’s making today’s companies more responsible and accountable for food claims.

Remember when scientists told us that slathering butter on our toast or baked potatoes clogged our arteries? Every time I used that little pad of butter I felt guilty.

The nutritionists and scientists and their ‘studies’ were actually paid for by the trans fat proponents who then recommended Becel/Promise, the butter alternative. Unilever is a margarine-producing company that has taken advantage of this public shift towards assumed "healthier" fat options by producing a variety of non-hydrogenated, low in saturated fats margarines.

People dutifully did as they were told and switched to margarine unaware that those unpronounceable chemical names on the package indicated a new substance to worry about – trans fats! Trans fats have their own hazards. When margarine was first introduced it actually reduced the good cholesterol (LCDL) while increasing the bad cholesterol (HDL). Talk about being sold a bill of goods by those we trust to protect our health.

While clinical trials at the time indicated that it reduced cholesterol and therefore was a healthy choice for heart health other studies showed that it didn’t reduce the risk of heart disease, although many consumers believed it did.

The truth is there was never any real reliable evidence that margarine was better for you than butter. I wonder how many people feel like they were misled?

Mazola replaced my favourite Virgin Olive oil in cooking in the 1980’s for exactly the same reason.

Then there was George McGovern’s Senate committee in 1977 that came to the conclusion that the US needed a low-fat diet and by the end of the decade they had made it so.While manufacturers balked at the move initially they soon realized that low-fat products meant more profits. The only thing was is that low-fat products taste like crap so they added sugar. The result was exactly the same amount of calories as before.

Meanwhile, the American Heart Association launched its own low-fat campaign. In 1988, in an effort both to raise funds and promote better health, the AHA introduced its program to label foods with its “heart healthy” seal of approval. Manufacturers would pay the AHA to be able to put the seal of approval on their products. Products that were hardly healthy like Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, Fruity Marshmallow Krispies, and Low-Fat Pop-Tarts benefited from the program.

The problem with the seal of approval was that it was only available for processed foods not fresh food – quite the dilemma! The fattening of America was the result not heart healthy living.

The popular health media loudly promoted low-fat at grocery store checkouts and advertisers filled the magazines with all manner of claims. A 1993 survey of 17,000 women found that 86% of those interviewed got nutritional information from magazines, a principal source being food advertisements (Rothstein, Public Health and the Risk Factor)

Not a week goes by that one report saying a food or beverage is good for you then the next a ‘study’ shows it’s bad.Headlines like "Glass of wine a day could shave years off your life," one recent headline warned or "Just five alcoholic drinks a week could shorten your life," said another. Don’t drink coffee it’ll kill you yet it’s the best antioxidant out there.

“I never believe any headline that says 'X' foodstuff is associated with 'Y' outcomes in health terms. The science is almost always rubbish” said Christopher McCabe, Institute of Health Economics.

The data tends to be flawed because studies are done by surveys of incongruous demographics and supported by researcher bias at the very least.

John Ioannidis, a Stanford professor of medicine who has published a series of papers exposing weaknesses in nutritional epidemiology told the CBC News that "What it ends up being is that you get things published that are what the investigators, the reviewers and the editors want to see." – seriously?

Richard Bazinet, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, says dogma is to blame for our acceptance of health claims by advertisers. According to the CBC, back in 1908, scientists noticed that rabbits that were fed high cholesterol diets (meat, eggs, milk) developed plaque in their arteries. It was the beginning of a diet-heart hypothesis that reached full flower in the 1950s, when researcher Ancel Keys convinced the world that diets high in saturated fat increased the risk of heart disease.

It wasn’t until recently that real studies showed that heart health and the fat/carb diet/health equation is much more complicated.

What is profoundly dangerous is when pharmaceutical companies ghostwrite articles for prominent researchers that obviously extolls the drugs virtues and diminishes its flaws. Drugs like Vioxx, hormone replacement therapy and antidepressants have spawned class action lawsuits. My personal experience is that I won a major lawsuit against the manufacturers of Vioxx after a near fatal reaction to the drug that the manufacturer knew could happen.

Dannon, the company that makes Activia yogurt and DanActive dairy drink had to pay $56M US to settle a deceptive advertising charge and class-action suit related to the two products after they advertised that their products were scientifically proven to be beneficial to one’s health. They misrepresented the results of all of their studies and clinical trials.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is trying to combat food fraud where manufactures claim health benefits or misleading claims of vitamins, etc., in their products. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, in a food watch blog, said “If you put vitamin D and whole grains on the front of your package, it's a health claim without being an explicit health claim.”

McGill University bioethicist Jonathan Kimmelman reported that a survey of bi statisticians on ethical practises indicated they regularly ‘fudged’ stats. Kimmelman said the results should be concerning to everyone. "We use [statistical] information to make decisions about what drugs to take, what foods to eat, what policies to make, what chemicals to ban," Kimmelman said. "It's crucial to protect the integrity of that data."

"Dishonest statistical analyses can lead to false discoveries," said Andrew Althouse, a biostatistician at the University of Pittsburgh.

There are a number of reasons researchers may want to hedge facts for fiction on peer-reviewed papers. It could be tenure, pay raises that come with being published but more than not it’s the money paid to them by unscrupulous food, drug, product manufacturers who are trying to mislead the public into buying their product over others.

People need to follow common sense about food, diet and their understanding of healthy living. For me I have gone back to butter, drinking lots of coffee (and red wine) and for added measure I will be eating my poached eggs with sourdough bread.

Now I’m wondering if my switch to cooking with coconut oil was BS too. Oh well!

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