Nutrition Science Should Be Taken With A Grain Of Salt

March 17, 2013

On this little space we like to call “TheIronYou” we talk about food, nutrition and health, almost on a daily basis. We create recipes that are supposed to be good for you. We discuss about the ultimate superfood landed in grocery stores. We point out the latest researches made by scientists. Often, we just ramble about what goes through our minds.
Whatever that might be, there’s one thing we want to stress out: when we talk about nutrition science keep in mind that it's a relatively young science still surrounded by much uncertainty.
So whenever you’re reading about “this is good for you”, “this is bad for you”, “if you eat this it will kill you”, “if you eat that you will live forever”, don’t take it for granted but process it into your mind with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Science On A PlateCredit: Image courtesy of University of Aberdeen

Unlike other sciences such as a physics, mathematics or astrology, research on nutrition has been conducted just over the last two centuries or so. 
The first vitamin was identified in 1897 and the very last one in 1948; the role of lutein in human health has been reviewed less than ten years ago. 
Nutrition science is an active, changing, growing body of knowledge, where scientific findings seems often to contradict one another or are subject to conflicting interpretations1.
For this reason we often struggle to decipher current studies to learn what is really going on. If the scientist doesn’t know what is going on, how am I supposed to?
Yet, many facts in nutrition are known with a certain degree of certainty. So even if it might not be 100% sure you still can rely on them.
Let’s make an example. It is well established that eyesight depends largely on Vitamin A, because in trials animals deprived of that vitamin (and only that vitamin) tend to go blind. When it is restored soon enough to their diet they regain their sight. The same facts holds true in observation in humans2.
We know that carrots and papaya are foods packed with carotenoids rich in Vitamin A. Hence, eating those food can be beneficial to eyesight.


On the other hand, today everybody stampedes for oats, blueberries and kale based on current researches claiming that these products are good for health. But what will happen if tomorrow it is discovered that this is not true after all?
Remember that one experiment, a single study, doesn’t prove or disprove anything. The following step is for other scientists to attempt to support or to challenge that study.
Only when a finding has stood up to rigorous, repeated testing in several experiments conducted by different researchers, it might be finally considered confirmed.
Provided that in nutrition science there are no facts set in stone but rather theories that are always subject to revision.
So what we “know” in nutrition is confirmed through years of replicating study findings. A slow path of repeated researches. Being nutrition a relatively young science, the whole discovery and verification process is still, in some cases, at a very early stage. This explains the uncertainty.
According to Michael Pollan:
Nutrition science, which after all only got started less than two hundred years ago, is today approximately where surgery was in the year 1650— very promising, and very interesting to watch, but are you ready to let them operate on you? I think I’ll wait awhile3.
Nutrition science still remains a fascinating subject, that someday will be able to produce definitive answers to questions. We’re just not there yet.
This means that we still need to research, discover, study and be curious about everything related. The fact that there’s little certainty makes the whole process even more interesting. Don’t you agree?
In conclusion, what we want to stress out is that whenever we write about a new study or we brag about a certain new superfood you should read it with a grain of salt. Think about it, process it into your mind formulating your opinion and knowing that even if today it’s accurate, tomorrow it might as well fall into pieces.

1 Sizer F.S., Whitney E.N., Nutrition Concepts and Controversies. Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2011. Print
2 Sizer F.S., Whitney E.N., op cit.
3 Pollan Michael, Food Rules: An eater’s Manual, New York, Penguin. 2009. Print


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