Since last February, I’ve been keeping you abreast of growing concerns about data coming out of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, headed by Dr. Brian Wansink. And today, thanks to some excellent reporting by BuzzFeed News, those concerns have become even more serious.
As many of you know, Wansink is the moving force behind a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative known as “Smarter Lunchrooms,” which promises that small tweaks to cafeterias can positively and meaningfully influence children’s food choices. Some of the prescribed techniques include giving vegetables fun names (“X-Ray Carrots”), said to increase kids’ vegetable consumption, and moving the chocolate milk behind the white in cafeteria coolers to discourage kids from taking the latter. (I interviewed Wanskink about these ideas here on The Lunch Tray back in 2011.)
But earlier this year, a team of data analysts reportedly found over 150 errors and inconsistencies in four of Wansink’s papers. None of the four were related to Smarter Lunchrooms, but soon after, one of those analysts, Jordan Anaya, specifically focused on the study regarding the use of attractive names for school food vegetables.
In an article on Medium, “Cornell’s Alternative Statistics,” Anaya claimed to have found in that study everything from simple math errors to reported standard deviations that were off by a factor of 100. Anaya concluded his devastating critique by saying that “an entire post could be written just on the inappropriate methodology and statistical tests used in this paper. . . .”
After reading Anaya’s account, I was the first to sound the alarm (“BREAKING: Can We Trust the Data Behind Smarter Lunchrooms?”) that the USDA might be wasting taxpayer dollars on Smarter Lunchrooms. Since 2010, the USDA has spent almost $20 million to fund Wansink’s studies and to promote his techniques in schools.
The agency further endorsed the initiative by changing the name of its voluntary certification program – the“HealthierUS School Challenge” – to include “Smarter Lunchrooms” in the title, and schools now have to show compliance with various Smarter Lunchrooms principles to qualify. The initiative has even been woven into federal regulations by the USDA: the relatively new federal rule on local wellness policies specifically informs school districts that “at a minimum, FNS [the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service] expects [districts] to review “Smarter Lunchroom” tools and strategies . . . .”
But since my February post, many more disturbing revelations have come out regarding Cornell Food and Brand Lab data. To date, at least 50 of its published studies (not all relating to Smarter Lunchrooms) have come under fire for data irregularities, three of which have been retracted and seven of which have been corrected. (I’ll also mention my own harsh critique back in 2014 of one of Wansink’s studies, this one regarding moms, “food fears” and the Internet.)
Now Stephanie M. Lee, writing for BuzzFeed News, has revealed that a study published in 2012 in JAMA Pediatrics – already corrected once by Wansink – grossly misrepresented the study’s findings: Although the study claimed that children “ranging from 8-11” years old were more likely to choose apples over cookies if the apples bore an Elmo sticker, BuzzFeed News found that the study was actually conducted on children aged 3 to 5. It’s a shocking “error,” and one that BuzzFeed claims is also true of another 2012 Smarter Lunchrooms study, this one about carrots and published in Preventive Medicine.
With respect to the Elmo sticker study, Wansink has admitted to BuzzFeed News that “We made a mistake in the age group we described in the JAMA article. We mistakenly reported children ranging from 8 to 11 years old; however, the children were actually 3 to 5 years old,” and has reportedly asked that the JAMA Pediatrics article to be retracted. He has not commented on allegations regarding the carrot study.
In light of these latest revelations, the big questions on my mind right now are these:
- Has the USDA wasted $20 million in taxpayer dollars to fund and implement shoddy Smarter Lunchrooms research?
- Could that money have been better spent by schools to simply improve their food?
- And how could an institution as illustrious as Cornell allow this alleged misconduct to go on under its nose for so very long?
I’ll keep you posted regarding any further revelations here.
[Hat tip: Nicholas Brown, one of the initial data analysts and a continuing critic of Wansink, for alerting me to BuzzFeed’s story.]
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