Journalists Repeat Evidence-Free Claims from Scholars Associated With “Big Carb”

Extraordinary claims once required extraordinary evidence. Now you can apparently get glowing media coverage without presenting any evidence at all. The latest reporting on a claim is “too good to check” started with coverage in The Telegraph, which declared:

“Third of early deaths could be prevented by everyone giving up meat, Harvard says”

The Daily Mail blurbs the coverage from The Telegraph and inaccurately states the findings are from a “study,” but that’s not so.  The quotes are actually from a Unite to Cure Fourth International Vatican Conference panel presentation by two scholars closely tied to “Big Carb” with claims that have not been published or subject to peer-review. One of the panelists was a co-author of a study released today, but that study has nothing to do with the claims about meat from the conference. According to the quotes from the presentation, the research is apparently nothing more than a preliminary estimate:

"We have just been doing some calculations looking at the question of how much could we reduce mortality shifting towards a healthy, more plant based diet, not necessarily totally vegan, and our estimates are about one third of deaths could be prevented."

The scholars on the panel included Dr. Walter Willett and Dr. David Jenkins, who both have multiple conflicts of interest. In addition to being devotees of vegetarian or vegan diets, they were also recently co-chairs of the International Carbohydrate Quality Consortium (ICQC) whose sponsors (according to their annual meeting program) include food companies that profit from selling carbs: pasta company Barilla (who was recently exposed for funding authors whose studies found pasta was healthy), Nestle, and General Mills. The last panel participant was Dr. Neal Barnard of the animal rights group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

The journalists that covered this non-story did not note any of these facts, but readers deserve to know about the weak quality of the evidence and the biases of those making grandiose claims in the public discourse. Further, basic journalism standards require that sourcing of information be balanced. It would not have been difficult to reach out to any number of experts in the field who would have been happy to critique the claims presented or provide an alternative perspective.

All three panelists are known for backing their claims almost entirely on weak observational or epidemiological data, which can demonstrate only associations, not causation. Nutrition Coalition Executive Director Nina Teicholz and Gary Taubes of the Nutrition Science Initiative recently wrote about the problems with epidemiological studies in The BMJ:

"A 2011 analysis of 52 claims made by nutritional epidemiology tested in 12 well controlled trials found that not one of the 52 claims—0%--could be confirmed. [5] A 2005 analysis by Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis concluded that highly-cited observational findings such as those in nutrition were confirmed by RCTs in only 20 percent of cases. [6]"

The 2011 analysis concluded: “Any claim coming from an observational study is most likely to be wrong.”

It’s disappointing that the media uncritically promotes evidence-free declarations while largely ignoring groundbreaking advances in the scientific literature. For example, in February, Virta Health released peer-reviewed findings of a clinical trial (a far more rigorous type of science) showing 60% of patients had reversed type 2 diabetes after one year of adhering to a low-carb diet with the help of a mobile app.

None of the publications that covered the conference panel reported on these findings—which represent a highly promising way to combat a disease on the rise. Instead, they quote Dr. Jenkins’ recommendation to eat like a lowland gorilla (an herbivore), including “63 servings of fruit and vegetables a day” and include Dr. Willett’s claim, based on zero peer-reviewed published evidence, that it is “probably an underestimate” to say that cutting out meat could save 200,000 lives a year.