Have you ever heard about a ‘superfood’? Perhaps you have seen an ad about a particular food or beverage and heard “studies show….XYZ magical power/health benefit comes from eating this superfood!” Have you ever felt confused about conflicting nutrition information you hear reported in the media and wondered why the heck the dialogue has changes on certain foods and eating patterns? What if I told you that there is a lot of industry funding in nutrition research? And what if I told you the reason you may hear health claims about super foods and learn conflicting information about different dietary patterns may be at least partially attributable to industry’s financial hand in nutrition research?
How would that make you feel? Upset? Would you trust the research? Would you trust nutrition science in general? Or would you perhaps have questions about why industry is funding scientific research at all (spoiler alert: it’s primarily in the interest of their marketing)?
In case you haven’t guessed already, today I want to talk about industry funding in nutrition research. It’s an ongoing problem that I see as a public health issue. Not only does it decrease credibility of nutrition science in general, but it also leads to public confusion about dietary patterns while perhaps largely consequential public health implications.
Industry funding is not specific to the nutrition world. The cigarette and pharmaceutical industries have previously invested in scientific research on their products, and have been known to send out bribes to physicians and other health practitioners. Reviews suggest that there is a bias in results of research funded by these industries.
And nutrition is sadly no different. There is a lot of industry-funded nutrition research, and evidence suggests it more often than not is biased towards the sponsoring companies.
What is industry-funded research?
Industry-funded research is scientific research that is financially supported partially or completely by a food or beverage company.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Theoretically, it is possible for a scientist to maintain integrity and carry out sound research on the industry’s dime. However, the industry funding research studies often forces a hand in the study design process or in marketing of the results, and this is where there is a large potential for some serious bias.
How does this even happen?
Research is expensive. And federally-funded grants are competitive. Depending on the administration, government funded research may face budget cuts.
The dearth of research funding puts some scientists in a rough position: either don’t continue your research, or seek outside funding. This is where the industry can swoop in and compensate scientists.
I want to make this clear because I believe scientists who accept industry-funding are not inherently bad people or bad scientists. Sometimes they are people just trying to do their best, and doing what they have to do to continue their work and move the field forward.
Industries put out requests for new and continuing research proposals. Here’s an example from California Strawberry commission (CSC). It states, in its opening sentence: “The California Strawberry Commission (CSC) invites qualified researchers from public and private research organizations to request funding for projects that will directly benefit the California strawberry industry.”
By design, only research studies that more or less guarantee a positive result get funding from the CSC. Research study design is hard. It can be challenging to develop a sound, unbiased study. Especially when you consider all researchers inherently have a small to large amount of bias, even if they try to fight it. What’s important is being aware of these biases and actively working to implement study designs that do not allow researchers to carry bias into their work.
How much money does industry put into nutrition research?
A lot. A recent analysis found that the food industry donated $366 million to academic programs between 2000-2016, with purpose for donations rarely stated. That’s a lot of money, with the potential for a lot of power dynamics to sway reporting of research outcomes.
Several academic journals, including the Journal of Nutrition Education, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and the Journal of the American Dietetic Association all have histories of accepting sponsorship from companies like Coca-Cola, Gerba, Slim Fast, cereal and nutrition supplement companies, and more.
And major scientific authority groups also partner with industry. For example, this year’s virtual ASN conference had sessions sponsored by Northwest Cherries, Pepsico, National Dairy Council, Nestle, Pom Wonderful and Herbalife, among others.
So although it is hypothetically possible to carry out unbiased research with industry funding, research suggests that this rarely happens.
For example, a 2007 review of 206 scientific studies, found that the funding source was significantly related to conclusions in the articles. Strikingly, 0% of industry-funded interventional studies reported negative conclusions, compared to 37% of studies that had no industry funding. The authors concluded that industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of the sponsoring industry, with “potentially significant implications for public health.”
A 2016 article by leading expert in food politics, Marion Nestle, found 76 industry-funded studies between March and October of 2015. Of the 76 research studies, 70 reported results that were favorable to the interests of the sponsor.
*Quick side note, Marion Nestle’s work is the basis of this blog post. I have seen her speak and read her books and she is undoubtedly the expert in industry-funded nutrition research. All credit for my awareness of this problem goes directly to her. I highly recommend checking out her blog. She also has written several books about industry funding and food politics. This is not sponsored (wouldn’t that be ironic), but I just had to give credit where credit is do. She’s a legend!
Some examples of industry funding in nutrition research:
A classic example of industry funding in nutrition research is a sweet one: the infamous tale of the Sugar Research Foundation and their work to pay off Harvard scientists to downplay the potentially detrimental health impacts of sugar consumption, and to have them instead point the finger at fat as the primarily culprit for poor health outcomes. The results of the research group were published in JAMA, a prestigious and generally well-trusted scientific journal.
While this may not seem like a big deal, it very much is. Nutrition research can sway public opinion and even public policy, and therefore, plays a role in public health. The following decades proceeded with the low-fat diet trends, where other things, like added sugars and salts, made their way into more and more staple products.
Similarly, a research group called the Global Energy Balance Network, which was a nonprofit that claimed to fund research on causes of obesity, repeatedly made the point that it was a lack of exercise, not poor diet, that was primarily responsible for the obesity epidemic. Turns out that the Global Energy Balance Network was primarily funded by Coca-Cola, who used its research findings to promote healthy living with exercise that could include Coca-Cola products.
Want some more recent examples? Oh, there are so many. Here are just a few:
Article: Dobersek, U., Wy, G., Adkins, J., Altmeyer, S., Krout, K., Lavie, C. J., & Archer, E. (2020). Meat and mental health: a systematic review of meat abstention and depression, anxiety, and related phenomena. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 1–14. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2020.1741505
- Conclusion: Review of 18 studies, which ranged from “low to severe risk of bias with high to very low confidence in results.” 11/18 studies demonstrated meant-abstention was associated with ‘poorer psychological health.’ 4 were equivocal, and 3 showed meat-abstention was associated with poorer physiological health. They also comment: “There was mixed evidence for temporal relations, but study designs and a lack of rigor precluded inferences of causal relations. Our study does not support meat avoidance as a strategy to benefit psychological health.”
- Funded by: “Funded in part via an unrestricted research grant from the Beef Checkoff, through the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association”
- My comments: It is odd to me that media outlets reported meat eaters have better health, when the review itself says some of the evidence is of poor quality, and that their results didn’t have causal inference (meaning they couldn’t imply meat was the reason for better mental health). Also, the beef industry funded this study, so the results should be taken with a grain of salt, especially in light of the large body of research that supports properly planned plant-based diets for overall health.
Article: Nieto-Ruiz, A., Diéguez, E., Sepúlveda-Valbuena, N., Catena, E., Jiménez, J., Rodríguez-Palmero, M., Catena, A., Miranda, M. T., García-Santos, J. A., G Bermúdez, M., & Campoy, C. (2020). Influence of a Functional Nutrients-Enriched Infant Formula on Language Development in Healthy Children at Four Years Old. Nutrients, 12(2), 535. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12020535
- Conclusion: “The functional compound-enriched infant formula seems to be associated with beneficial long-term effects in the development of child’s language at four years old in a similar way to breastfed infants.”
- Funded by: “This project has been funded by Ordesa Laboratories, S.L. Ordesa is in the business of funding formula products.
- My comments: A large body of research has supported exclusive breastfeeding for 4-6 months for overall long-term health benefits for mother and child. There is a time and place for formula and it is not a bad food nor should it be a source of shame. However, breast milk is likely healthier for long-term outcomes.
Article: Hirahatake, K. M., Astrup, A., Hill, J. O., Slavin, J. L., Allison, D. B., & Maki, K. C. (2020). Potential Cardiometabolic Health Benefits of Full-Fat Dairy: The Evidence Base. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 11(3), 533–547. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmz132
- Conclusion: “Emerging evidence shows that the consumption of full-fat dairy foods has a neutral or inverse association with adverse cardiometabolic health outcomes, including atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and associated risk factors.”
- Funded by: “Published by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Global Dairy Platform and IFCN Dairy Research Network.”
- My comments: Other research on dairy and health that was not funded by industry suggests that dairy can be part of a healthful diet, and can be a source of calcium, vitamin D, and protein; however, research also suggests that dairy is nonessential. There are many ways to eat a heart-healthy diet, with or without dairy.
Article: Tindall, A. M., McLimans, C. J., Petersen, K. S., Kris-Etherton, P. M., & Lamendella, R. (2020). Walnuts and Vegetable Oils Containing Oleic Acid Differentially Affect the Gut Microbiota and Associations with Cardiovascular Risk Factors: Follow-up of a Randomized, Controlled, Feeding Trial in Adults at Risk for Cardiovascular Disease. The Journal of nutrition, 150(4), 806–817. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxz289
- Conclusion: “…gut microbiota may contribute to the health benefits of walnut consumption in adults at cardiovascular risk.”
- Funded by: “The California Walnut Commission”
- My comments: The California Walnut Commission is notorious for funding studies that suggest they are favorable for human health. Are walnuts good for you? Yes. But are these walnut studies funded by industry likely skewed to play up in-vogue health trends for marketing purposes? It’s hard to say. Plant foods and fiber in general impact the microbiome. Actually, anything you eat impacts your microbiome. Are the results of this study a direct impact of walnuts? I’d like to see more non-industry funded research before I make any conclusions.
Article: Wade, A. T., Davis, C. R., Dyer, K. A., Hodgson, J. M., Woodman, R. J., Keage, H., & Murphy, K. J. (2019). A Mediterranean Diet with Fresh, Lean Pork Improves Processing Speed and Mood: Cognitive Findings from the MedPork Randomised Controlled Trial. Nutrients, 11(7), 1521. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11071521
- Conclusion: “Compared to LF [low-fat diet], the MedPork intervention led to higher processing speed performance (p = 0.01) and emotional role functioning (p = 0.03).”
- Funded by: “This study was funded by the Pork Cooperative Research Centre (#3B-113).”
- My comments: The Mediterranean Eating Pattern is among the diets that are recommended as healthy eating patterns. That said, I am confused as to why the authors decided to compare it to a low-fat diet, which they claim is currency recommended for heart health. I don’t think this is true in most places – most of what I’ve learned is that diets rich in PUFAs and MUFAs (unsaturated fatty acids) are good for heart health. Also, the study adds things like olive oil, unsalted almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, lentils, kidney beans, tuna, salmon and chickpeas to the Pork diet, and somehow claims that Pork is what made the diet healthy? This is poor study design at its finest. To truly decipher if pork is what made the diet “healthier” a more appropriate control group wound have had the same diet, but a different protein instead of pork.
Article: Wang, L., Tao, L., Hao, L., Stanley, T. H., Huang, K. H., Lambert, J. D., & Kris-Etherton, P. M. (2020). A Moderate-Fat Diet with One Avocado per Day Increases Plasma Antioxidants and Decreases the Oxidation of Small, Dense LDL in Adults with Overweight and Obesity: A Randomized Controlled Trial. The Journal of nutrition, 150(2), 276–284. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxz231
- Conclusion: “One avocado a day in a heart-healthy diet decreased oxLDL [oxidized LDL]in adults with overweight and obesity, and the effect was associated with the reduction in sdLDL [small-density LDL–the bad kind]…Avocados have a unique nutrient and bioactive profile that appears to play an important role in reducing LDL oxidation, hence decreasing LDL atherogenicity.”
- Funded by: “Supported by a grant from the Hass Avocado Board.”
- My comments: Avocados are indeed rich in unsaturated fatty acids and can be a healthful addition to a person’s diet. However, once again, there are some flaws in this study design. The group that was eating avocados in this study also ate more fiber and less saturated fat. High saturated fat is linked to increased LDL levels. So, it’s hard to tell how big of a difference avocados actually made. To truly parse that apart, you’d have to compare diets that were equivalent in calories, saturated fats, fiber, etc, among others.
Article: Sansone, R., Rodriguez-Mateos, A., Heuel, J., Falk, D., Schuler, D., Wagstaff, R., Kuhnle, G. G., Spencer, J. P., Schroeter, H., Merx, M. W., Kelm, M., Heiss, C., & Flaviola Consortium, European Union 7th Framework Program (2015). Cocoa flavanol intake improves endothelial function and Framingham Risk Score in healthy men and women: a randomised, controlled, double-masked trial: the Flaviola Health Study. The British journal of nutrition, 114(8), 1246–1255. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114515002822
- Conclusion: “Cocoa flavanol (CF) intake improves endothelial function in patients with cardiovascular risk factors and disease.”
- Funded by: “Additional funding was provided by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (KE405/5-1 to M. K. and FOR809 TP7 Me1821/3-1 to M. W. M. and MK), and through an unrestricted grant by MARS Inc. MARS Inc. also provided the standardised test drinks used in this investigation.”
- My comments: This study design is actually pretty sound. However, as Marion Nestle points out in this piece, it is odd that Mars would fund such a study without the intent of using results for marketing. Indeed, the proceeded to send around a press release, touting the benefits of cocoa.
*Summary chart below.
As you can see, industry-funded nutrition research is plentiful. Take home point: always check the funding source of any research study you examine, and carefully check the study design and statistical analysis methods for potential signs of bias.
So, should industry fund nutrition research?
Based on the evidence above that suggests industry funding sways research outcomes in favor of the sponsor, I would say ideally, no, there should be no industry funding in nutrition research.
Not only does industry-funded research have the potential to confuse consumers and sway health trends, industry-funded research shows up to influence public health policy and nutritional guidelines. Taken together, this implies that industry-funded research could have seriously public health implications, and therefore, should be avoided if at all possible.
Ideally, there would be some sort of regulation around industry-funded research. However, at present, little exists. And in a dream world, one could hope that scientific research was better funded by the government so researchers didn’t feel the need to take funding from outside sources, like industry.
Take home: Industry funding in nutrition research
Industry funds a lot of nutrition research, and evidence suggests that industry-funded research typically ends with results that are favorable to the industry. This has the potential to encourage public confusion about nutrition, and to sway diet trends and recommendations, with potentially significant public health implications.
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