After expressing my frustration in March with WebMD's coverage of pomegranates and dairy weight loss claims, I was interested and surprised to see the new Consumer Reports rating of health websites give its highest rating to WebMD. For nutrition websites in particular, the Consumer Reports rating site seems potentially useful, especially after the Tufts Nutrition Navigator went offline earlier this year due to lack of continued funding. Consumer Reports specifically mentioned that WebMD was transparent about industry support for its editorial positions, which contradicted my earlier impression.
So, I checked to see if WebMD had done anything to correct the record on dairy weight loss claims. Indeed, it had. Without mentioning its earlier role in promoting the dairy weight loss hype, WebMD ran a major article in early June focusing on the new study showing an association between dairy consumption and weight gain among the young: "A growing body of research is taking aim at the claim that there is something special about milk and other dairy foods that help people lose weight." In contrast with WebMD's earlier coverage by a different author and editor, the new article treats Michael Zemel's research much more skeptically and mentions his industry funding, though not his unusual patent on the dairy weight loss claim. It quotes Tufts' Alice Lichtenstein explaining the mainstream view among nutrition scientists that calorie balance, rather than any particular nutrient, holds the key to weight gain or loss: "[Lichtenstein] tells WebMD that she has seen nothing to convince her that any single nutrient or nutrient mix holds the key to easy weight loss."
The contrast between WebMD's reversal and the unresponsiveness of the American Dietetic Association is striking. A brief research update written by ADA's own staff in June 2004 mentioned Zemel's research on dairy weight loss but added the sensible caveat: "As always, remember that no one study should form the basis for overhauling your eating plan. More research is needed to fully understand the results of this study." As we noted earlier, a recent web page on the ADA site shows the dairy industry's heavy hand. I wrote ADA to ask about this strangely credulous account of the dairy weight loss claims, which (without mentioning it) precisely mimics the dairy industry's 24/24 milk advertising slogan. Among other things, I asked who wrote the language on the ADA's site. The ADA response by email stated that the web page acknowledged that it was written in collaboration with the MilkPEP, the milk processors' industry organization. You can see for yourself on the page that the page only briefly mentions "milk processors" at the very bottom. It does not acknowledge any role of MilkPEP in authorship. The ADA web page is especially misleading in selectively linking to research that supports the dairy weight loss claim, but ignoring the considerable research that failed to corroborate this claim. This web page is inconsistent with the ADA's official position in support of the mainstream weight loss message, focusing on calorie balance rather than particular nutrients, articulated by Lichtenstein above and in the federal government's dietary guidelines. I think ADA's unwillingness to reconsider this web page undermines the association's claim of editorial independence from its financial supporters in the dairy industry. Is anybody at the association monitoring this?