A teachable moment

So, PepsiCo has started up a new blog here on ScienceBlogs called Food Frontiers.

From the profile:

PepsiCo’s R&D Leadership Team discusses the science behind the food industry’s role in addressing global public health challenges. This is an extension of PepsiCo’s own Food Frontiers blog.

This blog is sponsored by PepisCo. All editorial content is written by PepsiCo’s scientists or scientists invited by PepsiCo and/or ScienceBlogs. All posts carry a byline above the fold indicating the scientist’s affiliation and conflicts of interest.

From the introductory post:

On behalf of the team here at ScienceBlogs, I’d like to welcome you to Food Frontiers, a new project presented by PepsiCo.

As part of this partnership, we’ll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo’s product portfolio, we’ll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

In June, I had the pleasure of meeting Pekka Puska, president of the World Heart Federation — we’ll be hearing from him on this blog, as well as other global leaders in nutrition research, in every context ranging from government, to academia, to industry. PepsiCo’s research team draws from all of those branches: Dr. Mehmood Khan, PepsiCo’s Chief Scientific Officer, served as the director of the Mayo’s Clinic’s endocrinology and nutrition clinical trial unit, and Dr. George Mensah, PepsiCo’s Vice President of Global Nutrition, was the chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Cardiovascular Health Program for almost a decade.

We have some exciting things planned for this project, including a video series that will begin with a look at the role the food industry plays in health issues, and how industry research into chemistry, physiology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, medicine, and nutrition can improve health outcomes around the world.

As we like to say, science is driving the conversation unlike ever before — and ScienceBlogs is happy to be at the center of it all.

This has proven to be extremely controversial among the bloggers on this site, to say the least, with some expressing outrage, going on hiatus or deciding to leave. Some of the reaction:

I completely respect my colleagues individual decisions. To say the least, I’m not pleased about sharing the ScienceBlogs platform with Pepsi — their products are definitely not a force for good in the world and their advertising and promotional efforts work against encouraging healthy eating and sustainable food practices.

But, I haven’t made up my mind yet as to what I’ll do. Certainly, hiatus and relocation back to my original site are both options that I will consider.

Before I make my decision I want to see how this plays out a little more — in particular I’m looking forward to getting a feel for the posts on the new blog, whether they feel corportate or whether they attempt to engage in a conversation about food culture, health and the best way forward for a sustainable food industry. And while I’m no expert, I do suspect that if we are going to come to a more sustainable planetary food and agricultural status quo, corporations will have to become part of the solution in the future as much as they’ve been part of the problem in the past.

But what do I mean by “teachable moment?”

Last night as I was pondering the situation, all I could think about was how I approach Web sites when I do literature research skills sessions for science students. How I talk about knowing who creating the content, thinking about why they created it, what their biases are, what they’re trying to convince their audience of. I also thought about teaching students to be skeptical, both of those they instinctively disagree with as well as those they instinctively agree with.

I thought about the ACRL’s Information Literacy Standards for Science and Technology:

Standard Three

The information literate student critically evaluates the procured information and its sources, and as a result, decides whether or not to modify the initial query and/or seek additional sources and whether to develop a new research process.

*snip*

Standard Four

The information literate student understands the economic, ethical, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and its technologies and either as an individual or as a member of a group, uses information effectively, ethically, and legally to accomplish a specific purpose.

And I thought about trying a little harder in the coming year to really talk about the core issues with students, especially around understanding who to trust and how to sniff out bias and misinformation.

If I was doing a search in a class and landed on a Food Frontiers post, what would I say? What questions would I ask the students?

  • Who created this post and what is their agenda? Are their biases clear?

  • Is this science or is it advertising?
  • Did PepsiCo pay to have this information posted?
  • Are they engaging comments honestly and authentically?
  • How does the presence of this blog affect the credibility of other blogs on the site?
  • Is PepsiCo at all credible in this information space?
  • Would you use this information in your assignment? If so, would you use it as expert opinion like you would a peer-reviewed journal article or would you use it as background/social context?

Like I said, I’m still undecided. A appreciate comments and advice, perhaps even more questions that my hypothetical students should ask.

A good first step (irrespective of what my personal decision is going to be) would be for ScienceBlogs to make it as easy as possible for my students to answer those questions if and when they stumble upon a Food Frontiers post.

Comments

  1. #1 bsci
    July 7, 2010

    There is no question that a corporate run information source has biases. Biases alone are not a disqualifying factor.
    One other question I’d ask is whether the blog provides information that isn’t available at places without the same biases. For example, for a network on science and the culture of science, I don’t think there is a single voice in this network who is industry and blogs about her/his work. For all the discussions regarding practice of science, that’s a huge gap. (A few people have industry jobs that they keep out of their blogs)

    Getting a view into the life and work of a food industry scientist would add to this network. It is unclear if that is their plan and I doubt it would be their focus, but it would be interesting.

    Even with that benefit, paying for a blog on a respected network without being crystal clear that is happening from every way a person might reach a post is where I’d draw my line about what is or is not acceptable.

  2. #2 Tanya
    July 7, 2010

    Thanks for a thoughtful post, John. Like many people, I’m really uncomfortable with ScienceBlogs hosting a corporate blog on nutrition sponsered by Pepsi, but this could be a very educational situation all around …

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    July 7, 2010

    Nice post.

    I agree with virtually all of my colleagues statements about the evils of yadayada. But I don’t agree with two things that some people seem to have signed on to:

    1) Tat the correct reaction is to run away like our hair just caught fire.

    2) That scienceblogs.COM was a non-profit organization yesterday and is today owned by Pepsi.

    Perhaps many Sblings started to believe the blank-ness in the right side bar generated by ad block software.

    I suspect that Sb management will make some but not all of the correct changes that should be made. Then people will have to decide if they want to blog for a mostly non-evil corporate blog or put their stuff somewhere totally neutral and non corporate. Like Google’s blog hosting service. Or, there must be one run by Microsoft. Or Yahoo.

    In the mean time, all this yelling and screaming is probably a good thing.

  4. #4 John Dupuis
    July 7, 2010

    bsci, thanks, that’s an interesting perspective.

    Tanya, I agree completely. Like Greg says, I’m not sure running around like our hair’s caught on fire is the best short term strategy. On the other hand, it has forced a few welcome changes.

  5. I think it’s OK if a commercial company has information to share, regardless any kind of media. It’s part of Information Literacy. People should know about their product clearly whether there is advertising inside or not as long as it get people educated not cheated :-)

  6. #6 Mary
    July 8, 2010

    I think a couple of things are incongruous here. Many people on this site (SB) have commented that there aren’t enough academic positions out there, and we need to make alternative career paths available for science. Well, here’s one…Let’s communicate with them and hear what’s up, perhaps?

    Another issue is that everyone says what some of these companies do is so murky. And that they aren’t listening to consumers. Well, here’s one trying to reach out, and they are slammed for it. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…

  7. #7 Onkel Bob
    July 8, 2010

    Teachable? The student haas to be willing to learn, and in my limited education experience the students least willing to learn are the ones who believe they know it all.

    Cue the joke: Those of you who think you know it all are very annoying to us who do.

  8. #8 Passerby
    July 9, 2010

    This is one of the few blogs that I visit regularly at SB. You are an obvious exception in your response, in that didn’t immediately post notice of intent to protest. My respect for you went up another notch.

    >the students least willing to learn are the ones who believe they know it all.

    I could not find evidence of a single SB blogger that posted a strongly worded (and often snide and misinformed) protest, who bothered to go to the Food Frontiers blog on their corporate website to review site content and attempt to understand corporate motive for asking for a blog on SB.

    If they had, they would quickly come to understand that the Pepsi Corporation is keenly interested in discussing policy objectives that will affect their product composition and brand portfolio in the future.

    They are not deaf, not dumb, and not blind to the realities of burgeoning health care crisis from unsustainable public and private program costs. They fully realize that fast foods are smack in the middle of this problem.

    They also realize that that sugar, grasses and grains, dairy and meat producer subsidies are likely to be cut back severely in the near future, ending a cash-cow relationship with ingredient supply markets.

    Pepsi started a campaign a few years ago to identify processing and flavoring options that reduce salt, sugar, fat content within product lines, and adding nutrients while retaining critical flavor signatures. They are also introducing reduced individual portion and bulk package sizes to also curb serving calorie density.

    On the environmental impact front, they’re introducing biodegradable packaging and promoting stand-alone recycling for plastics and aluminum cans. The corporation has also reduced their brand portfolio weight in fast-food chains, like KFC, Taco Bell and several pizza joints.

    There are very few comments posted on their blog; they have a problem with consumer outreach. This is why they either approached, or agreed when approached, to a commercial support partnership with SB.

    First, let me say that I’m not affiliated in any way with the food processing industry. I’m an environmental engineer, so waste reduction is obviously of professional interest to me. However, I also have a research background in cell and molecular biology and toxicology.

    There are clear and obvious connections between infectious disease susceptibility and under-nutrition. And also between pollution exposure and both chronic and infectious disease host susceptibility and etiology.

    If one of the leaders in the beverage and snack food industry wants to engage the public in policy and product-health impact issues, I am ready to listen attentively.

    Problems with impaired public health, growing pattern of adult, teen and toddler obesity, sedentary behaviors, and their relationship to behavioral pathology, sleep disorders, immune impairment and inflammatory diseases and diabetes must be addressed and soon.

    We cannot spend our way out of this health care crisis.

    This is the teachable moment in what Erik Klemmeti termed the ‘Tempest in a Teacup’ debacle.

  9. #9 John Dupuis
    July 12, 2010

    Thanks everyone, I really appreciate your feedback and comments.

    It’s interesting that there seemed to be two types of responses amongst the various sciblings — those that felt that they needed to do something concrete pretty well immediately and those that didn’t. At first glance, those two camps seemed to break down into journalist-identified and not. I don’t think that’s completely the case but it’s probably close enough to be worth paying attention to.

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