"Navigator" Web Site:
A national nutrition-advocacy organization
today questioned the reliability of advice offered by Tufts University's
"Nutrition Navigator" World Wide Web site. The Tufts Web
site evaluates other nutrition sites and recently has been reviewed
uncritically in the New York Times and USA Today.
"The Nutrition Navigator steers Web-surfers toward sites that
support the status quo, and it doesn't make that bias clear to users,"
said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center
for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
"Apparently, any Internet site that dares to question official
dogma risks being labeled 'inaccurate' no matter how good its evidence,"
A Tufts spokesperson told CSPI that its "Nutrition Navigator
relies heavily on official dietary recommendations, reports, and
regulations issued by government agencies to set the benchmark for
evaluating context within standard dietary recommendations and guidelines."
| Jacobson said that food-industry funding
might explain why the Tufts site is not reliable: The site is underwritten
by Kraft Foods. Kraft, a division of tobacco giant Phillip Morris,
markets many foods that are high in salt, fat, or sugar, including
margarine, ho dogs, and cheese.
The criteria for rating Web sites were established by a six-person
advisory committee, at least three of whose members have close ties
to the food industry. That includes a former director of Nabisco and
advisor to the Snack Food Association, a trustee of two food-industry
advocacy groups (the International Life Sciences Institutes and the
International Food Information Council), and a consultant to the dairy
Tufts University's nutrition department itself receives substantial
corporate funding. For instance, Procter & Gamble, maker of both
Crisco and the fake fat Olestra, recently financed a Tufts conference
on fat-modified foods and gave the department $50,000 or more in addition
to the cost of the conference.
Jacobson charged that those corporate links undermine the Navigator's
credibility. "With funding and advisors like that, it was entirely
predictable that the Navigator would favor Web sites sponsored by
industry groups and criticize sites sponsored by industry critics,"
For instance, Tufts rated the International Food Information Council's
site as "among the best." "Yet," Jacobson charged,
"IFIC's site provides biased, often inaccurate information about
such controversial topics as trans-fat, pesticide safety, and Alar.
What else would one expect from an organization created and funded
by the food and chemical industries?"
The Navigator rated the National Pork Producers Council's site significantly
higher than CSPI's. CSPI's site, Tufts said, was down rated partly
because it criticizes several food additives that the FDA has approved,
including Procter & Gamble's Olestra.
"Some Tufts University researchers have also questioned the approval
of Olestra," noted Jacobson. "It's ironic that the Navigator
penalizes Web sites for taking the same position that some of its
own faculty takes."
Tufts also criticizes CSPI's Web site for "presenting only one
side of some controversial and multifaceted questions." However,
Jacobson said, "Tuft didn't mind that the pork industry's site
offers a completely one-sided view of pork products, many of which
are high in fat or salt."
Tufts top-rated CSPI's site for technical accuracy, but told CSPI
that "official dietary advice" does not single out individual
foods as being good or bad and criticizes CSPI for doing so. Thus,
it penalized CSPI's Web site for saying that some movie-theater popcorn
and restaurant meals were so loaded with fat, saturated fat, or sodium
that people would be better off skipping them. Tufts told CSPI that
it should provide "a context in which these food choices could
be incorporated into a healthy eating plan." With that approach,
Tufts discourages any criticism of any foods, no matter how high in
fat, calories, sugar, sodium, or cholesterol they are.
"That's a rather bizarre requirement for any nutrition educator,"
said Jacobson. CSPI recommended that people seeking nutrition Web
sites visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Web site.
CSPI is a nonprofit consumer organization based in Washington, D.C.,
that focuses on food safety and nutrition. It led efforts to get the
"Nutrition Facts" labels on all foods; to restrict the use
of sodium nitrite, sulfites, and other dangerous additives; and to
halt many deceptive food ads. In 1996, notwithstanding CSPI's frequent
barbed criticisms of the FDA, Jacobson was honored with the FDA's
highest honor for non-employees, the Commissioner's Special Citation
and the Harvey W. Wiley medal.
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