New York Times, June 4, 2018
Gina Kolata


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Suppose you wanted to do a study of diet and nutrition, with thousands of participants randomly assigned to follow one meal plan or another for years as their health was monitored?

In the real world, studies like these are nearly impossible. That’s why there remain so many unanswered questions about what’s best for people to eat. And one of the biggest of those mysteries concerns salt and its relationship to health.

But now a group of eminent researchers, including the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, has suggested a way to resolve science’s so-called salt wars. They want to conduct an immense trial of salt intake with incarcerated inmates, whose diets could be tightly controlled.

The researchers, who recently proposed the idea in the journal Hypertension, say they are not only completely serious — they are optimistic it will happen.

Using inmates as study subjects is controversial, to say the least. History is laden with horror stories. In the 1940s, prisoners were deliberately infected with malaria. In the 1950s, inmates were infected with hepatitis. A decade later, scientists irradiated prisoners’ testicles.

“Prisons are an inherently coercive environment,” said Ruth Macklin, an ethicist and professor of epidemiology and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

But “that doesn’t mean informed consent is impossible.”

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