Vegetables

Nutrition’s legacy as a “soft science”

Nutrition has always been considered a “soft science”—a field rife with studies showing associations but no firm causations. Conclusive trials in humans are very difficult to do, and long-term studies assessing disease prevention are often cost prohibitive. In the past, the status quo was to do studies with laboratory animals to test whether a certain food or nutrient had an effect on cancer incidence or the hardening of arteries that can lead to heart disease or another such end point, but this approach lacked a critical element: the “why” was missing. “Something went in, something possibly resulted from it, but what happened in-between was largely a black box,” said Linus Pauling Institute Director and Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics Balz Frei, PhD. “What was lacking was mechanisms.”

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Recent headlines linking folic acid and autism are misleading and potentially dangerous. Photo credit: Tatiana Vdb // Flickr
Recent headlines linking folic acid and autism are misleading and potentially dangerous. Photo credit: Tatiana Vdb // Flickr

Last week, many in the nutrition and medical fields let out a collective sigh. That’s because there is good quality nutrition research, from actual humans in randomized control trials, showing the importance of folic acid supplementation during pregnancy. Taking a multivitamin with 400 mcg of folic acid (the form of folate found in most supplements) can prevent birth defects associated with the brain and spinal cord. And organizations like the March of Dimes have done a good job getting the word out about folic acid to women of childbearing age. The FDA even just announced it would allow corn flour to be fortified with folic acid, in order to prevent birth defects among women who eat corn as a staple in their diet.

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