Thursday, July 15, 2010

This is Nuts

Penn State is doing more than $765 million in annual research and the claim that we would jeopardize a stellar international research reputation over a small research project is a pretty big stretch[.]-Penn State Chief Bullshit Artist Bill Mahon as quoted by the AP.

This video features Penn State nutritionist Penny Kris-Etherton extolling the health benefits of eating pistachios ostensibly, at least in part, based on her recently published research.

Penn State ran its first press release on Penny Kris-Etherton's research on pistachios and cholesterol back in May, which I discussed here. In a nutshell, Kris-Etherton research into the link between pistachio consumption, higher levels of blood antioxidants and lower levels of oxidized low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol failed to find the effect she was looking for. Why does this failed investigation deserve not one, not two, but three separate posts, the last with the above video embedded,  at The Penn State Propaganda Portal? Before I answer that question-no fair looking at my previous post, let's review Kris-Etherton's research on pistachios.

It had already been established that pistachios lowered the level of LDL cholesteral, i.e. bad cholesterol, and raised high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, i.e. good cholesterol, in individuals with elevated levels of cholesterol, in the latter case in measured against a low fat diet. A high level of LDL is a well-known risk factor for coronary artery disease, thus the name bad cholesterol, but it is less well-known that there is much stronger association between oxidized LDL and coronary heart disease.

Enter Kris-Etherton. Pistachios  are loaded with antioxidants. The question that Kris-Etherton asked is, do pistachios lower the level of oxidized LDL beyond the amount one would expect from the overall lowering of the LDL level? Her work confirmed the earlier research on the diminution of the level of LDL  In addition, she found that the level of certain antioxidants in the blood were raised in a pistachio diet. However, she found no statistically significant association between the antioxidant levels and the level of oxidized LDL in the pistachio diet when the overall lower level of LDL was controlled for.  That is Kris-Etherton did not find the effect that she was looking for.

It would hardly seem appropriate under the circumstance to engage in a PR campaign to promote findings which weren't found, but that's exactly what Kris-Etherton with the help of The Old Main Propaganda Shop did.

In the first press release, she claimed,
Pistachio nuts, eaten as part of a healthy diet, can increase the levels of antioxidants in the blood of adults with high cholesterol, according to an international team of nutritional scientists.

"Our previous study showed the benefits of pistachios in lowering lipids and lipoproteins, which are a risk factor for heart disease," said Penny Kris-Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition, Penn State. "This new study shows an additional effect of pistachios so now there are multiple health benefits of eating pistachios."
While the press release does not come out and say that the increase in the levels of antioxidants in the blood of adults with high cholesterol is a health benefit of pistachios, these two paragraphs are clearly written to lead the reader to that inference.

But that press release contradicts that inference.
"Currently, studies on antioxidants do not show major benefits," said Kris-Etherton. "Maybe we are not studying people long enough. Maybe there is something in the food that travels with the antioxidants. The
antioxidant story is very disappointing to the scientific community.

The reason for the disappointment is that studies on specific antioxidants currently do not show health benefits, but epidemiological studies seem to indicate benefits. Many people feel that we have not
figured out antioxidants yet, said Kris-Etherton.

If antioxidants are important, then pistachios fit the bill as antioxidant-laden food.

So on the one hand, Kris-Etherton tells the readers that there is no evidence that antioxidants show major health benefits and on the other hand, Andrea Messer, the Penn State Bullshit Artist that wrote the press release, tells the reader that the press release would be correct if one assumes to be true that which the research failed to show to be true. Pretty neat.

But, in the two more recent press releases, all of the information about antioxidants showing no major benefits has been removed. In the second press release, the two misleading lead paragraphs remain and in the third, the misleading information is split between the headline and the caption on the video.

In the video embedded in the third press release, Kris-Etherton steers clear of any implication concerning the higher levels of antioxidants and lower levels of oxidized LDL. But she introduces a new twist in an effort to promote the supposed benefits of elevated serum antioxidants, reduction in free radicals. This is something her research never even looked and, again, there is no evidence of a health benefit  from antioxidants neutralizing free radicals.

The Western Pistachio Association also issued a press release on the study. (The have a video, too, but it's really rough.) It was even more explicit in claiming a health benefit for pistachios due to their high level of antioxidants. The headline on the release is "New Research Unveiled in The Journal of Nutrition Reveals Pistachios Protect the Heart in a New Way: Rigorous Study Shows "The Green Nut" is Rich with Antioxidants Linking Consumption to Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease." Kris-Etherton is quoted in the release, too. 
"In the past, many studies have focused on the role of lipids and cholesterol in heart disease," said Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton, researcher at Penn State University’s Department of Nutritional Sciences. "Pistachios are the only nut that give you significant amounts of lutein and zeazanthin -- 342 mg per ounce. They also provide 6.4 mg of gamma tocopherol. This study validates the significant antioxidant benefits of consuming pistachios. We plan to continue to explore the positive role pistachios play in the American diet."
Notice the pattern here? Kris-Etherton is very circumspect when making claims about her findings in these releases, here claiming not a health benefit, but rather an antioxidant benefit, meanwhile the authors of the releases make exaggerated claims about her findings.

The problem for the Western Pistachio Association is that the FDA regulates what type of health claims can be made about  foods on their labels and, in the case of nuts, the FDA has turned down a request that from the International Tree Nut Council to make the following claims with respect to pistachios amongst other tree nuts and peanuts,
  1. "Diets containing one ounce of nuts per day can reduce your risk of heart disease."s
  2. "Eating a diet that includes one ounce of nuts daily can reduce your risk of heart disease."
due to a lack of scientific evidence. The FDA did approve the following limited claim for these nuts.
"Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts [, such as name of specific nut,] as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. [See nutrition information for fat content.]"
Clearly, from a marketing standpoint, an equivocal claim is superior to one that hedges. So  the Western Pistachio Association funds research in the hopes of coming up with the evidence needed to get FDA approval for the stronger claim. When the research doesn't provide the answers needed to persuade the FDA, they ignore the findings and issue misleading press releases that the FDA has no control over. No need to waste all that money spent from the marketing budget on that research now is there?

And Kris-Etherton plays along, trying to keep her hands clean, in the whole dirty business,while letting her benefactors know that, "We plan to continue to explore the positive role pistachios play in the American diet." and she might add, we hope you keep funding us.

But even worse, Kris-Etherton with the help of The Old Main Propaganda Shop uses Penn State's "stellar research reputation"  to help the Western Pistachio Association sell a few more nuts in the hope of a few more dollars for a "small research project." and maybe as a bonus an all expense paid trip to some exotic land, too. 

Yep, quite a stretch there, Bill.

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