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.…