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A recent news story covered a study about processed foods and how eating those foods relates to cognitive decline. The only problem is, they didn't report on an actual published study. They reported on a pre-publication presentation at a conference. While it may not surprise you that news organizations would report sensational results without reviewing the full study, we were still a little shocked. Today we'll look at the ways we report on research and why we need to do better.

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Nutritional studies! The occasional, begrudging, bread-and-butter of Healthcare Triage. Up for scrutiny today: does consumption of ultra-processed food lead to cognitive decline? That's the topic of this week's Healthcare Triage.

[Upbeat theme music]

An August 2022 headline from CNN Health read, "Cognitive Decline Linked to Ultra-Processed Food, Study Finds." Curiously, the study upon which they were leaning was cited exactly nowhere in the article, so we had to do some detective work.

Googling only led us to other stories that cited not the study, but the CNN article we just mentioned! Searching scientific databases with relevant keywords didn't get us anywhere either.

Finally, after further 'detectiving,' we realized that the study being referred to was not, in fact, a published peer-reviewed study but an abstract for a conference presentation.

This is fine...ish. Data presented at scientific conferences can be assumed to have come from legitimate scientific work, but the ability to analyze the data and the conclusions drawn from them is difficult, because it's unlikely that anyone besides the presenting researchers have any access to the actual methods and data.

So CNN was just reporting what the researchers themselves reported on in their conference abstract and presentation, which took place on August 1st.

And no knock to the researchers, but we like our data well-reviewed and well-critiqued, and even then we like to go over it ourselves with a fine-toothed comb.

Taking someone else's word on a story their data tell and then spreading that story to the world definitely isn't our preferred method of science communication.

We can gather some information on methods and results from the conference abstract, but it's limited. So until the study in question is published, we can't give you our take on it.

However, we can probably predict with some accuracy what will and won't be said, at least in the media, when that time comes.

We predict that the paper, if published, will make similar conclusions to that of the conference abstract: that eating lots of ultra-processed, pre-packaged foods is associated with later-in-life declines in memory performance and executive function.

The media will likely report on this further, and we predict that few, if any, efforts will be made to emphasize that the study reports an association, and why that matters.

There will likely be few mentions of the fact that people who consume a lot of highly processed foods and people who don't also share a lot of other lifestyle differences.

This may or may not include things like education, income, and amount of time spent exercising, or engaging in other health-related behaviors-- all things that might affect cognitive performance.

We also predict that people will argue that such factors are statistically controlled for. To this we respond, as always, that statistics can only account for so much, particularly in nutritional studies where there are literally thousands of factors when we're looking at different nutrients and disease outcomes.

And lastly, we predict that few will point out how unreliable the answers to diet questionnaires are, especially when they are used at only a couple of time points to determine someone's diet over a long period of time.

Look, it's true that you should opt for whole rather than processed foods whenever possible, and we aren't trying to knock the researchers.

We are trying, a little bit, to knock the field of nutritional epidemiology for continuously putting out these same studies that don't advance our understanding. And we are definitely side-eyeing media stories that create hype where none should exist.

Hey, did you enjoy this video? You might enjoy this previous video on how nutrition studies are just terrible.

We'd like it if you'd like the video, subscribed to the channel down there. Consider going to where you can help support the show, make it bigger and better. We'd especially like to thank our research associates, James Glasgow, Joe Sevits, Edward Liljeholm, and Brian Nam, and of course, our Surgeon Admiral Sam.