What is the Elephant in the Laboratory? No, I’m not talking about some new and terrible form of animal testing, I’m talking about finance.
I know, finance is boring but please stick with me for a minute or two. When you want truth follow the money. It’s a sad fact of life that people with money are people with influence and therein lies the problem.
Why am I suddenly so concerned about this? Because of this article on how coconut oil isn’t healthy.
The article sounds perfectly plausible, highlighting the dangers of saturated fats and stating how there is no reason to consider Coconut oil as any healthier than animal based saturated fats. That’s fine, there is a lot of controversy on whether or not saturated fats are a problem but this information hailed from the American Heart Association (AHA). They are a huge organisation dating back to the 1920s that was created to combat heart disease and raise awareness of healthy living.
So far so good, but now we get to the Elephant in the room. One of the early sponsors of the AHA, who undeniably had a lot of influence in the organisation’s research, was Proctor & Gamble. These days P&G have interests in pretty much everything, but they started as a company who sold all things fat and oil (soaps, candles, oil) and at the point where they were the AHA were starting up P&G were well into the production of Crisco – a major name in vegetable shortening.
Vested interested in demonising saturated fat when you’re trying to sell vegetable fat products? What do you think?
Now, despite the best interests of organisations like AHA and British Heart Foundation, incidences of heart disease have sky rocketed in the western world and after decades of being told to swap butter for margarine and lard for vegetable oil.
Let me just say I’m not blaming these organisations, it’s just that AHA has stirred up some controversy and it’s a good time to air an ugly truth that the science community doesn’t like to raise it’s hand to – and that’s FUNDING.
Research costs money, a lot of money, and most of that money comes from private organisations rather than from government. Now imagine you’re a scientist, you’ve got a mortgage, you’ve got a car loan, you have a burning need to eat this week, and a company comes to you with an idea for research. All you have to do to get your mortgage paid for the rest of the year is do the research they want. Lying or fudging results is a serious breech of professional ethics, but you’ve already been handed a research idea that the company is pretty sure will make them look good.
Not convinced? Trying looking up lifecycle analysis research done into whether disposable or cloth nappies are better for the the environment. (try using Google Scholar for the best results with published papers rather than just articles like this one!) This was an example used while I studied at University to highlight the use of selective data and manipulation of statistics. Oddly enough (note the sarcasm), the disposable nappy manufacturers spent a lot of time on the energy used to properly wash cloth nappies and make the detergents, while the cloth nappy manufacturers dwelt on the landfill implications of disposables. In the end they both discovered that their way was best.
Phew, still with me? Well done, you’ve got a lot of staying power!
Back to the Elephant. We can’t ignore it, it won’t go away. It’s the reason we still have so much conflicting information on what is or isn’t good for us. If it was easy to see who had funded research it would be easy to know if information is biased or not, but of course it’s not that easy, and yes, I do sound like a conspiracy theorist now. Sorry about that.
The take away message from this is always get a second (informed) opinion when it comes to health advice. Just because one study says Avocados are deadly and will kill you the second you put it into your mouth (fictional study, source: My tortured imagination.), that doesn’t mean you should stick biohazard warning labels over your fridge and get it incinerated for the good of humanity. That sounds absurd but trust me, given time (and funding) I could provide a plausible research paper complete with experimental data and pretty graphs!
So if you see an article that makes you question everything you thought you knew, do some digging and see what other articles are saying on the same subject.