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.


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.

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