Over the past decade, Americans have increasingly begun to doubt their country’s major institutions, including academia, the media and politicians. The problem is, these Americans’ concerns are warranted. We’ve seen a federal public health institution funded by Coca-Cola and lying to Congress, a supposed academic authority lying under oath and intentionally publishing false information, and a Gatorade-sponsored athletic trainer association propagating dangerous hydration guidelines. And that’s just a portion of the problems we’ve seen in health and fitness.
Perhaps America is not cynical enough, since these institutions continue to enjoy esteemed positions in the press. Decent investigative journalism is rare these days.
Here are three recent examples of health and fitness articles that spread #fakenews.
Coca-Cola Scheme Gets an American Medical Association Cover
Bruce Y. Lee is an Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and holds other prestigious positions. He recently wrote an article in Forbes entitled “How About This Health Care Act That Both Democrats And Republicans Support.” Lee’s article advocates for the PHIT Act, a bill some fitness companies support because it will allow health savings accounts to cover fitness equipment and training.
To support his argument, Lee brings up Exercise is Medicine, claiming,
“a decade ago, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Medical Association (AMA) co-launched an initiative called Exercise is Medicine (EIM).”
This is not true, even though the Exercise is Medicine website still makes that false claim. We contacted Dr. Lee and sent him the following information:
I thought you might be interested in this letter from the AMA President denying that AMA “co-founded” Exercise is Medicine: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8wI0BJ2R7tMcUZPVFJVcC1YWEJDYkpoSDBhZ1RQek9sVXpF/view
In reality, ACSM founded Exercise is Medicine along with its “first founding partner” Coca-Cola.
This is why a recent BMJ article referred to it as “Coca-Cola’s Exercise is Medicine initiative.”
Portraying a Coca-Cola initiative as if the American Medical Association co-launched it is quite a deviation from the truth.
Dr. Lee did not respond to our email. Nor did he correct his false claims about the American Medical Association.
James Hamblin Overlooks Coffee Association’s Role in Caffeine Research
Dr. James Hamblin covers health for The Atlantic. This April he released “Drinking Four Cups of Coffee Is Probably Safe.” The article covered a recent International Life Sciences Institute systematic review on caffeine intake.
ILSI funding represents a major conflict of interest for any research on caffeine. ILSI was founded by a Coca-Cola executive, and it is currently funded by many corporations that sell caffeinated beverages. As ILSI’s caffeine review stated, it
… was sponsored by the North American Branch of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Caffeine Working Group. ILSI North America also received unrestricted grants from the American Beverage Association (ABA) and the National Coffee Association (NCA).
A diligent reporter would pick up on National Coffee Association dollars funding a study on caffeine. Yet James Hamblin did not mention the coffee group’s role in his piece. Nor did Hamblin mention that ILSI has functioned as a scientific advocacy organization for the tobacco, soda and junk food industries. “The International Life Sciences Institute” sounds like a fantastic scientific institution working to improve the world’s health–which is why Hamblin had a responsibility to identify its corporate backers.
Hamblin also failed to mention the International Food Information Council’s corporate backers, which include Red Bull, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Either Hamblin was aware that IFIC is an industry front group and chose to conceal it, or he failed to do the most basic research on his source.
It is possible that the ILSI caffeine review was good science. Don’t we all want to believe that drinking four cups of coffee per day is perfectly healthy? And we cannot conclude from funding sources alone that the study was fraudulent. It flatly denied that ILSI or its sponsors “had any influence over the grading, evaluation, or interpretation of the data collected in this review.”
Yet ILSI-funded research has a history of being less independent than it claims. An ILSI review on sugar claimed that its authors “wrote the protocol and conducted the study independently from ILSI.” Then Associated Press reporter Candice Choi discovered emails showing that ILSI in fact did request that the authors revise their study.
We tweeted Hamblin, asking him why his Atlantic article failed to reveal ILSI and IFIC’s corporate backers. He did not respond.
USA Today Misrepresents Science
Josh Hafner recently published “Running miles to lose weight? You’re wasting your time.”
To support that idea, Hafner cited a study conducted at the University of Western Ontario. Hafner claimed that the study found,
“The sprinters shed more than twice the body fat of the joggers after six weeks, while gaining some muscle mass. Those who jogged gained none.”
That’s not, however, what the study actually found. The abstract states, “Lean mass increased 1% in both groups.” And the full study says,
“Both training groups also gained a significant amount of lean mass (SIT = 0.6 kg, ET = 0.6 kg)”
Maybe this result didn’t fit neatly enough into his thesis. Or maybe he didn’t bother to read the study.
Who’s Behind #FakeNews?
We do not know how the above stories originated. When we see authors like Lee and Hamblin misrepresent the truth and then ignore attempts to correct their articles, corporate manipulation is a possibility. Publishing a canned article pitched by say, an ILSI representative, is certainly easier than undertaking original work.
Paul Thacker recently wrote an article in BMJ exposing how Coca-Cola’s Global Energy Balance Network held “journalism training” conferences that failed to disclose their corporate backing. If the news media does not think it’s worth investing in high-quality journalism, the food and beverage industry is more than happy to fill the gap.