“Big Pasta” Cooks Up Self-Interested Nutrition Science

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A new book by the global advocacy arm of the world’s largest pasta maker argues for a plant-based diet, rich in fruits, vegetables and grains — including pasta — to improve both health and environmental sustainability. The publication, Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the Global Food System (Island Press, June, 2018), is authored by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation (BCFN). While these claims lack a basis in sound science, the publication provides a compelling illustration of Barilla’s expansive, ongoing campaign to depict the consumption of grains as central to the company’s mission to be “Good for you and good for the planet.”¹

The book project is the latest in an array of initiatives aimed to influence nutrition science and policy, undertaken by the Parma, Italy-based Barilla Group since the founding of BCFN in 2009. The editor of Nourished Planet, Danielle Nierenberg, is the president of the U.S.-based FoodTank, a nonprofit dedicated to “environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity and poverty.” The group lists both Barilla and the Barilla-sponsored “Passion for Pasta Advisory Council” among its corporate partners.

Barilla is a global behemoth that listed worldwide revenues of nearly 3.5 billion euros² ($4 billion dollars) in 2017. As the food maker recently told Buzzfeed News, in 2016, it spent $400,000 on external research to influence global nutrition policy. Although hard figures are unavailable, it likely spent a great deal more on BCFN activities, given the 40 million euros ($46 million dollars) ear-marked for implementation of its nutrition-policy objectives according to its 2017 Report³ — not to mention the BCFN Foundation’s considerable roster of activities.

For instance, beginning in 2009, the BCFN has played host to the globe-hopping International Forum on Food and Nutrition, a day-long event with stops this year in Brussels, Milan and New York, the latter featuring remarks from some of the world’s most prominent high-carbohydrate diet advocates, including Walter Willet, a longtime professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and David Katz, director of the vegetarian advocacy group, the True Health Initiative.

The BCFN has published dozens of issue-based publications, such as Eating in 2030, and Longevity and Wellbeing – the Role of Diet; It funds groups such as the Boston-based Oldways, which promotes the increased consumption of whole grains (Oldways has long worked in close collaboration with both Katz and Willett.) In partnership with Thomson Reuters in 2017, it launched an annual Food Sustainability Media Award. And with the private consulting services of The Economist Intelligence Unit, it recently developed a Food Sustainability Index, which favors grains.

The campaign’s ambition includes policy makers in Washington, D.C. as well. At least three weeks over the past two months, for example, recipients of Politico’s daily newsletter on food and agriculture saw the following credit in the email subject line: “Presented by Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition.”

Perhaps most disturbing are Barilla’s attempts to influence nutrition science itself. In 2016, the company funded clinical studies in the U.S. and Europe, research “aimed at assessing independently and with scientific objectivity, the impact of pasta consumption on body weight,”⁴ among other health markers, work emphasizing “the nutritional quality of complex carbohydrates provided by pasta, which act differently from many other carbohydrate food sources.” Barilla co-funded research concluding that eating pasta as part of a Mediterranean diet is associated with lower BMI and waist-to-hip ratio. The study was observational, however – unable to demonstrate causality- and arrived at its conclusions only after extensive statistical adjustments.

Established media outlets such as Newsweek, New York Daily News and Business Insider reported on studies by Barilla-funded scientists without scrutiny, with headlines declaring that eating pasta is “linked to weight loss.” A Buzzfeed article noted that since 2008, at least 10 peer-reviewed studies about pasta have been either funded directly by Barilla or carried out by scientists with financial connections to the global pasta giant. One of the scientists, David Jenkins of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, told Buzzfeed that Barilla had contributed $456,000 to his research between 2004 and 2015, as well as travel funding.

Beyond its health claims, Barilla bolsters its promotions with claims that pasta is also good for the planet.

As the recently published Nourished Planet book explains⁵ via its “double pyramid” illustration, the message is “simple and straightforward.” A diet that is “healthy for the people is also healthy for the planet.”

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According to the Barilla pyramid, cattle place the greatest burden on both the environment and health. Certainly there is some science here worth considering, since beef production is thought to produce high amounts of greenhouse gas emissions while requiring more water per calorie than do plant crops. However, other research indicates that proper grazing management practices of ruminants on grasslands generate a carbon surplus, a “sink,”⁶ with beneficial impacts that delay global warming.

A separate argument asks if policy conversations over optimal land use can rest solely on the benchmark of calorie quantity without considering quality. One recent article on this topic notes that ruminant animals such as cows “have the unique capacity to convert non-digestible biomass (e.g. grasses and forages) into high quality protein.” A pound of beef provides protein and many more nutrients than a pound of pasta.

The issues at hand are clearly complex and still little understood by researchers. It seems that despite the haste to condemn cattle as principal bad actors, driven at least in part by Barilla, the bottom line on the environment and food is that the science still seems far from settled.

It is worth noting, too, that meat is a fierce competitor of pasta in the battle to occupy the central spot on the dinner plate. Thus, Barilla could very well be boosting weak science on the environment simply to push consumers away from steak — towards spaghetti.

There’s no doubt that Barilla faces market challenges in light of the fast-growing popularity of low-carbohydrate and ketogenic diets. “Keto” is the fastest-growing diet search in Google, and as of 2014, the number of Americans who avoid pasta and other carbohydrates approached one-third, surpassing the height of the Atkins craze. The same poll found that 44 percent of Americans who are actively trying to lose weight avoid carbohydrates.

Moreover, while Barilla is claiming that pasta can help with weight loss, a growing body of rigorous science shows the opposite. Carbohydrate restriction nearly always outperforms diets higher in carbohydrates in clinical trials. Meanwhile, the Mediterranean diet, which Barilla suggests is the ideal form of a high-grain diet, led to less weight loss than the low-carbohydrate diet, in the one trial that compared these two diets head to head.

It’s also unclear whether the Barilla-promoted Mediterranean diet improves cardiovascular outcomes. The landmark test of this diet, a trial called PrediMed was recently retracted, due to failures of randomization, and republished. The authors claimed that the observed cardiovascular benefits remained even after correcting for errors, yet a number of top experts expressed persisting doubts about the quality of the study. Dr. Barnett Kramer, director of the division of cancer prevention at the National Cancer Institute told The New York Times, “Nothing they have done in this re-analyzed paper makes me more confident.”

The other side of appealing to hope, of course, is the invocation of fear. In a recent post citing only weak observational evidence, a BCNF-sponsored blog went so far as to suggest that dietary pasta is necessary to avoid death, asserting that “excluding high-carbohydrate foods can increase the risk of sickness and mortality.”

Despite the weak science behind many of its claims, Barilla’s public relations efforts appear undeterred -- meaning readers can expect to continue to see Barilla’s interests echo through the media. As always, readers will need to remain cautious about books, think tanks, conferences and other efforts with significant industry support. Barilla pasta may make the public and the planet healthier, but these claims need to be examined with a healthy pinch of salt in the pasta water.

Note: The Nutrition Coalition has a policy of accepting no funds from any interested industry.

1,2,3https://www.barillagroup.com/sites/default/files/Bilancio%20Barilla%202017_210x297_EN_0.pdf

4https://www.barillagroup.com/sites/default/files/Bilancio%20Barilla%202016_ENG_0_1.pdf

5https://www.barillacfn.com/m/publications/doublepyramid2016-more-sustainable-future-depends-on-us.pdf

6https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308521X17310338