NUTRITION: Errors abound in academic paper

By Katherine Rich (in FMCG Business) 1 September 2015

In the modern age of mobile devices and predictive text spelling, mistakes aren’t considered to be such a sin, but when university academics present themselves as experts on the food industry and can’t even spell Coca-Cola correctly ("Coco Cola"), it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the academic paper.

Following an analysis of an Auckland University research paper published recently in Public Health Nutrition that led to widespread reports that 83% of packaged supermarket foods were unhealthy, spelling the name of the 128-year-old brand was the least of the authors’ oversights.

The extraordinary claim that 83% of such goods are unhealthy is based largely on significant flaws in the research’s methodology. The report reaches these conclusions by misusing the Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion (NPSC) developed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand solely for the regulation of health and nutrient claims. It’s not a food scoring system “to determine healthiness”, as the authors claim, and by misusing it they have created a totally misleading result.

What’s more, they took the system and made some arbitrary and ad hoc modifications due to limitations of their available data. They decided to ignore the important part of the calculation that gives foods good ‘points’ for containing fruit, nuts, vegetables, legumes and fibre. Is it any wonder the results were disappointing?

The paper creates the impression that ‘ultra-processed’ foods are automatically ‘bad’, which is completely false. Those who took the trouble to read it rather than just rely on Auckland University’s public relations release were shocked to see the sorts of foods caught up in so-called ‘bad’ food category: cheese, yoghurt, frozen and canned vegetables, bread, coffee, tea, breakfast cereals, pasta, rice meals, fish pies, breakfast spreads like Marmite, Vegemite and jams, and nut and fruit mixes. These are all foods that most people regard as part of a balanced diet.

Take breakfast cereals as an example. A recent review published by the American Society for Nutrition says cereal is an important part of a balanced diet and that regular consumption is associated with a lower BMI and a lower risk of being overweight or obese, with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes (by 24 per cent) and cardiovascular disease (by 20-28 per cent), and can help lower cholesterol, among other benefits.

It’s the breakfast cereal category that was the most maligned. The paper made the wild claim that cereals were “most likely to be adversely associated with non-communicable diseases” – a suggestion so surprising that FGC checked the Lancet paper cited as evidence to back the claim. Embarrassingly for the research authors, the Lancet paper doesn’t mention breakfast cereals at all!

There were also fundamental errors about the structure of the breakfast cereal category – again not a sin, but indicative once again of how little the authors knew about the grocery sector. The paper asserts that New Zealand’s “top” breakfast cereal manufacturer is Ozone

Organics, apparently with 51 products, two brand lines and 16.4% of all cereal products. In fact, Ozone Organics is a beverage maker and is unknown in the breakfast aisle to any of the major breakfast cereal manufacturers or our biggest supermarket chain. As those in the grocery sector (and frankly more of the general public) know, Sanitarium and Kellogg’s are the market leaders in number of products, both by market share and volume. What has probably happened is that the researchers accidently attributed Sanitarium’s entire stable of products to an unrelated tiny manufacturer.

Most suggestions in the paper were divorced from reality, but it was its conclusion – that supermarkets should artificially curb choice for shoppers by reducing the number of certain foods on shelf – that was the most bizarre.

And it’s here that some perspective on the role of supermarkets and packaged foods is sorely needed. When families go to the supermarket they want fruit, vegetables and other fresh produce, but they also want bread, cheese, biscuits, snacks and treats. They want to choose from more than 25,000 products, ranging from staple foods (which hopefully form the bulk of the diet) to ice-cream and chocolate. That’s the point of going to a supermarket – to get everything at one time.