In 2010, a press release from Wageningen University and Research Centre (WUR) in The Netherlands trumpeted a claim by one of its faculty members that people who drank 3 glasses of milk per day reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease by 18 percent. The trouble was, the study that the press release was announcing didn't exactly find that to be true. And now one of the US scientists who coauthored the study, a Dutch Dairy Association-funded meta-analysis of 17 previously-published papers, has called the release misleading and distorted, prompting WUR to withdraw the claim and issue a clarification.
The meta-analysis was published in the January 2011 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and makes much more tempered statements about the relationship between milk consumption and cardiovascular disease. For instance, the published paper says: "This dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies indicates that milk intake is not associated with total mortality but may be inversely associated with overall CVD [cardiovascular disease] risk; however, these findings are based on limited numbers." The Dutch press release, on the other hand, starts with the headline: "Milk effective against cardiovascular disease." The press release goes on to quote WUR nutrition scientist Sabita Soedamah-Muthu as saying the study's results included the finding of an 18 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease risk in three-glass-a-day milk drinkers.
An animal rights group was the first to complain about the release, telling the Dutch Advertising Code Authority that the claims made in it were misleading and that the WUR was acting as an "adverstising agency" for the dairy lobby in The Netherlands. The complaint prompted WUR to insert the words "appears to be" into the headline of the release
Harvard University epidemiologist and study coauthor Walter Willett agrees that the press release is misleading. It considered "only a small subset of the overall data," Willett told ScienceInsider. "The much larger part of the evidence from the study did not support a benefit for cardiovascular disease." Willet added, "When a study funded by industry is misrepresented to put the industry in a favorable light, concern about influence is appropriate."
The continued controversy promoted WUR to issue a clarification to the original press release this week, after negotiations between the study authors and the research center. "The results of this study are not sufficient to make recommendations regarding consumption of milk or other dairy products," the clarification reads. The WUR researcher who was quoted in the release making the three glasses of milk per day claim, however, maintains that the study was independent and that the Dutch dairy industry held no sway in the research.