Ethics of Food Research

Research into the nutritional value of food has significant impact on the development of public health policy and the governance of food systems. For instances many governments regard the reformulation of ‘unhealthy’ foods through food science as key to preventing diet-related diseases. In addition, the actual process of nutritional research, particularly funding and commercial use raise a number of ethical questions regarding the influence of funding sources on research agendas and outcomes. This section is divided into three parts: Nutritional Research Ethics, Public Health and Dietary Guidance, and Food Politics and Governance. Across these subsections, key texts are highlighted to assist independent inquiry into distinct aspects of food ethics and research.
by rjp218 Mar 20, 2015

Nutritional Research Ethics

In recent years, critical attention has shifted from the influence of tobacco or pharmaceutical industry on scientific research or policy makers to the influence of the food industry. In this shift there has been growing concern over the influence of the food industry on nutritional research, scientists and the institutions in which research is occurring. This important area of research is in the developmental stage, with a number of key articles listed below.

Katan, Martijn B. “Does Industry Sponsorship Undermine the Integrity of Nutrition Research?” PLoS Med 4. no. 1 (2007): e5.

In this brief editorial, Katan (2007) surveys the influence of industry on research design, research agendas and outcomes. This is a useful introductory text suitable for in-class discussion.

Marks, Jonathan H., and Donald B. Thompson. “Shifting the Focus: Conflict of Interest and the Food Industry” The American Journal of Bioethics 11. 1(2011): 44-46.

Marks and Thompson argue for a shift in focus from the pharmaceutical industry to the food industry. Highlighting a need to articulate an analytic framework to examine the influence of industry representatives on the integrity of public research institutions.

Lesser, Lenard I., Cara B. Ebbeling, Merrill Goozner, David Wypij, and David S. Ludwig. "Relationship between funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles." PLoS Med 4, no. 1 (2007): e5

Lesser et al. provide a detailed analysis of the relationship between industry-sponsored research on health benefits of beverages and the published outcomes of this research.

Rowe, Sylvia. et al. “Funding Food Science and Nutrition Research: Financial Conflicts and Scientific Integrity.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89 (2009): 1285-91.

Representing the International Life Sciences Institute North America Working Group on Guiding Principles, Rowe et al. outline eight principles to assist researchers in negotiating potential hazards surrounding industry-sponsored research.

Public Health and Dietary Guidance

A driving force behind the ethics of nutritional research is the potential health-effects on populations. Although diets and health regimens have been prescribed to individuals and communities throughout history, the rise of nutrition science over the past three centuries has been used to establish an authoritative science base for dietary guidance. Dietary guidance, whether from a private expert or a public health campaign, not only raises technical questions about the veracity and benefit of the guidance, but also raises questions about the purpose of life and whether an individual has an obligation to eat nutritionally.

Foxcroft, Louise. Calories and Corsets: A history of dieting over two thousand years. Profile Books Limited, 2012.

Foxcroft writes a history of the social norms and dieting practice used to regulate the body and health. This history provides important context for considering and critically engaging with contemporary dietary guidance.

Hughes, Roger, and Barrie Margetts. Practical Public Health Nutrition. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

Hughes and Margetts provide a comprehensive textbook that covers theoretical, definitional and practical issues in contemporary public health nutrition. This text is directed towards public health practitioners, however the early chapters provide insight into arguments linking nutritional guidance and public health.

Keys, Ancel, and Margaret Keys. Eat Well and Stay Well. Doubleday & Company, 1959.

Ancel Keys is an influential figure in the history of dietary guidance and epidemiology. Keys argued that dietary fat influenced human health, suggesting diets high in animal fats lead to heart disease. In Eat Well and Stay Well,Keys and his wife Margaret popularized the ‘Mediterranean diet’, which consists of high consumption of legumes, unrefined grains, olive oil, fruits and vegetables, with low consumption of meat. Keys’ research and recommendations has been the subject of much debate for the past fifty years.

Pollan, Michael. Food rules: An eater's manual. Penguin Books, 2009.

Pollan’s collection of ‘food wisdom’ criticizes the influence of nutritional science on the public’s diet, suggesting passed down advice is a more reliable guide than the latest nutritional science. An accessible and short text.

Wheelock, Verner, ed. Implementing dietary guidelines for healthy eating. Blackie Academic & Professional, 1997.

Wheelock’s edited collection offers global and critical perspective on the relationship between dietary guidance, public health and the individual. A diverse group of contributors critically examine nutritional guidance in countries such as Greece, Bulgaria, Canada, New Zealand and the UK.

Food Politics and Governance

The politics and governance of food production, research and consumption not only determines what people eat, but the analysis of governing rationalities of food practices also provide a window into underlying debates in political philosophy. Hidden questions about the State’s obligations toward its citizenry or the individual’s relationship to the community are brought to the surface when examining why food labeling should be regulated or whether food imports and exports are exempt from tariffs. The below texts introduce some of the key debates and themes in food politics.

Inness, Sherrie. Ed. Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food. New York: Rowman & LIttlefield, 2001.

This edited collection of essays provides an introduction to the politics of food preparation in American society, in particular the influence of gender. A useful collection for a perspective on gender and the politics of food.

Nestle, Marion. Food PoliticsHow the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. 2nd ed.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Nestle’s work on food politics has had enormous influence on academic and public debate surrounding the influence of the food industry on nutrition research, dietary guidance and the democratic process. This work, or sections of it, will prove useful for students and researchers interested in the politics of the food industry, dietary guidance and nutrition.

Oosterveer, Peter. Global Governance of Food Production and Consumption: Issues and Challenges. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2001.

Oosterveer highlights the environmental transformations impacting global food production, arguing that new modes of governance and policymaking are needed to address these new challenges.

Weirich, Paul, ed. Labeling Genetically Modified FoodThe Philosophical and Legal Debate. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Weirich edits a collection of essays addressing the legal and philosophical debates of labeling in the context of genetically modified food. This is a rigorous overview of an important theme in contemporary discussions over the governance of commercial foods, the consumers ‘right to know’ and the role of labeling.