How far should you believe research reports and scientific studies?

When in doubt, check who profits

How many articles on research reports have filled your social feeds this year? Hundreds, maybe thousands? As we rapidly approach the end of the year, let me share some of my favourite discoveries from 2015: couples are happiest having sex once a week (surely this is personal preference?), creative people are more dishonest (hide your valuables from writers, artists and musicians everywhere), spending three or more hours in front of the TV as a teenager could result in poor brainpower in middle age (shocking!), quitting Facebook makes you happier, and there are too many scientific studies out there (according to another study).

There is one paper in particular that caused widespread furore, dominated headlines and social networks, and caused the hashtags #FreeBacon, #BaconGeddon and #JeSuisBacon to trend on Twitter for days. Yes, to the horror of bacon, pancetta and chorizo lovers across the globe, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that 50g of processed meat a day, which equates to less than two slices of bacon, increases the probability of developing colorectal cancer by almost a fifth (18 per cent).

While processed meats being listed as carcinogens resulted in days of interviews with defiant full English breakfast-eaters and feeds full of sizzling bacon pics, the real impact of the research was revealed in supermarkets’ sales figures. In the two weeks following the WHO’s announcement, bacon sales plummeted by £3 million. It seems while many stoic meat-lovers continued to tuck into their sausages during breakfast TV interviews, a large proportion of the nation avoided the meat aisles like the plague. Clearly, such research holds a huge amount of power when it comes to changing people’s behaviour – no matter how ingrained into their lives it may be.

Take eggs, for example. Back in the 1970s, groups such as the American Heart Association advised that people cut back on eating too many eggs as their yolks were laden with cholesterol. Thus eggs became the devil-incarnate for anyone who was concerned about the risk of heart disease. Now, there has been a U-turn and eggs are back in our dietary good books again – they’re full of protein, rich in selenium and are a source of numerous vitamins and minerals, etc etc. According to the British Egg Industry Council, retail egg sales are set for a record year with sales up six per cent over the first three quarters of this year over last.

While the processed meat research was published by a bevy of international scientists, you often have to question the motive behind research reports published and who is ultimately funding them. Who, for example, could possibly benefit from research that finds people should focus more on how much they exercise rather than what they consume? Sugary drinks manufacturer Coca-Cola, perhaps? Yes. This summer, the New York Times reported that the Coca-Cola company was behind the non-profit research group the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). Consisting of university researchers, this group accepted a $1.5 million donation from Coca-Cola – and then lo and behold, sugary drinks and diet weren’t the cause of obesity, but lack of exercise. Emails exchanged between the group and Coca-Cola’s executives obtained by the Associated Press revealed the extent of influence Coca-Cola was wielding. Coca-Cola’s chief scientist and health officer Rhona Abblebaum has since retired.

So what should you take from this? The key thing to remember when reading research is that it has a purpose. Look at who conducted it, who’s involved, and what they might have to gain. And above all, take everything with a pinch of sodium – even if the study says it’s bad for you.