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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
   VegSource | Questionable reliability

Tufts "Navigator" Web Site:
Misleading Advice

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," said Jacobson.

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 industry.

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," he said.

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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