a soft boiled egg in a egg cup surrounded by other eggs in a basket

"Eat eggs and live longer"- the discovery process

Obviously, this ‘headline’ is fictitious, but it got your attention, didn’t it? Reports of research findings in the area of food and health seem to get a lot of media coverage, after all, food and health issues are of interest to nearly everyone. Reporters, academics, and health professionals all want the latest information—as do consumers. A single study and the reports surrounding it can send many people in search of the latest food or supplement holding the promise of good health.

Frustrated and confused by the tremendous amount of food and health information reported nowadays, many people want simple certainties to help them protect their health through diet. The trouble is that single studies rarely provide such certainty, although they often get big headlines. The media, health professionals, and educators are the gatekeepers of today’s food and health information. They have a large influence on what consumers hear, read, and believe about food and health. Along with that comes the responsibility to provide the facts accurately, put them in perspective, and help people understand how the findings may affect their behaviour and health choices. Responsible media reporting means that new studies should be critically reviewed before being publicised. News releases and study abstracts, although helpful for the identification of interesting research, don’t provide all the information necessary to accurately report findings to the public.

A process of discovery and debate

To consumers, it often seems that contradictory studies about food and health appear in the media almost weekly, leaving many to wonder why researchers can’t get it right the first time. The answer is not straight forward, because to understand it means we must accept uncertainty. The scientific process is a road of discovery. It’s the process of gaining knowledge about the universe through the observation of measurable evidence. Contrary to what many people believe, this ‘road’ is not a straight, smooth motorway: researchers may take different directions of exploration, going down routes that twist, turn, and sometimes even backtrack or come to a dead end, before the facts are uncovered. Even then, the facts uncovered may be only part of a larger, partially understood phenomenon, which requires further research before we come to more complete answers.

As a result, the scientific process—how studies are designed, conducted, and reported—frequently generates a great deal of debate. Tracking the debate is often key to putting new research into context. With that in mind, new research studies published in scientific journals should be viewed as discussions among scientists. In these discussions, almost no one gets to have the final word, as it’s rare that a study provides a final, complete answer. In fact, occasionally even old, accepted research results are revisited and discussed again. With the benefit of new information or technology, scientists sometimes see previous research results in a new light. The publication of research findings allows researchers to get opinions and critiques on their work by other experts, which not only confirms or contradicts their conclusions but also adds to the body of literature on a subject and so helps shape future research.

The bottom line is that dialogues characterised by cycles of revision, conjecture, assertion, and contradiction are frequently key to investigating a subject. Although such cycles often frustrate non-scientists and contribute to increasing public scepticism about advice on food and health, it is important to understand that science is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Because scientific research explores the unknown, uncertainty is an unavoidable part of current investigations. Only through repeated research and analyses can certainties emerge.

Who do you trust when it comes to obtaining information about nutrition and quality? What are the difficulties you experience when looking for reliable sources of information about nutrition and quality of food?


References

  • Swinscow, TDV. (1997) Statistics at Square One, 9th edn. London: British Medical Association.
  • Coggon, D., Rose, G. and Barker, DJP. (1997) Statistics for the Uninitiated, 4th edn. London: British Medical Association.
  • World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and American Institute for Cancer Research (AIRC) (2007) Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer - a Global Perspective.
  • Langseth, L. (1996) Nutritional Epidemiology: Possibilities and Limitations. ILSI Europe Concise Monograph Series.
  • Angell, M. and Kassirer, J. (1996) Editorials and conflicts of interest. The New England Journal of Medicine, 335(14), pp. 1055-1056.
  • Eastman, M. (1997) Nutritional Epidemiology, Principles of Human Nutrition. London: Chapman & Hall Press.

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This article is from the free online course:

Trust in Our Food: Understanding Food Supply Systems

EIT Food