Our interest in nutrition follows a yearly cycle. Interest peaks around the second week of the year as people make New Year’s Resolutions. Interest declines and then picks up again In June. Then, as we head toward the end of the year, our thoughts turn to the holiday season and we spend our time searching for gifts for friends and family, or vacation destinations and we forget about nutrition.
Throughout the year, certain nutrition stories surface to grab our attention outside of the traditional news cycle. What dietary news caught our eye this year?
This was the year when vegetarian meat alternatives went mainstream! In April 2019, newspapers were awash with stories about classically carnivorous chain restaurants launching meat-free products. The trend started already in 2018 with some smaller chains but it really picked up when Burger King, one of the world’s leading hamburger chains, introduced a vegetarian hamburger in April to its U.S. stores. This product has sold so well that many other burger chains have followed suit, each trying out a vegetarian burger offering on their menu.
These new products are a far cry from the lentil or bean burgers in years past. They are made using cutting-edge food technology such as 3D-printing techniques that replicate the structure of meat, the addition of novel ingredients such as soy-derived heme (an iron-containing molecule) to add a meaty taste, and cell culture to grow meat cells without the need for an animal1-4. The products have a smaller carbon footprint that their full-blooded counterparts and cater to the lifestyles of people who want to eat vegetarian without compromising on a meaty flavor.
The red meat controversy
A systematic review concluding that eating meat was not unhealthy had the nutrition world talking in 2019. The article recommended that current intakes of red and processed meat are acceptable from a health point of view. The authors based their conclusions on four parallel reviews investigating the potential negative effects of meat consumption on heart health and cancer, and a fifth that addressed meat-intake values and preferences. The authors did not consider environmental or animal welfare concerns.
The advice is contrary to current dietary advice to limit consumption of meat, particularly red and processed meat. According to its Altmetric scorecard, it was picked up by 273 news outlets and it was shared widely on social media. Many nutrition scientists deemed the work confusing for consumers, and irresponsible given the current concerns about the environmental impact of excessive meat consumption. Other studies of cardiovascular disease risk and cancer risk from high intakes of red and processed meat have shown that high intakes are not advisable.
Nutrition clinical trials
Have you ever asked someone a question, and were given an answer to a different question? This was explored in the context of nutrition research in an article published in JAMA Network Open in November5.
Back in 2004, reputable medical journals have required that clinical trials register the purpose of their research before it starts. After the results are published, they can then be easily compared with the initial intent of the study. This requirement was introduced to avoid that researchers only publish interesting results and ignore evidence that is inconsistent or ambivalent.
It seems that more than 80 percent of nutrition researchers reported results that weren’t in their primary research plan. This is like asking a question but being given the answer to a different question. While the researchers’ results were interesting enough to be published, the lack of reporting on the main research question likely means that the main study results were inconclusive. However, it’s important for nutrition science to report all study results, even if the researchers feel that they are not exciting enough to publish. Inconclusive results can also advance nutrition science and stimulate further research.
This story was picked up by several news outlets and the New York Times ran an opinion piece by the authors.
This year’s nutrition headlines revealed consumer attitudes toward plant-based protein options and the research community’s accountability for reporting all study results to help advance future nutrition clinical trials. What will 2020 bring? We can’t wait to find out.
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