by Marion Nestle
Nov 21 2013

More on food company sponsorship of nutrition research and practice

The American Society of Nutrition (ASN) is not the only nutrition society raising issues of conflict of interest (see yesterday’s post).  The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) is the subject of two recent analyses of this problem.

FoodNavigator-USA interviewed a number of people, including me, about the implications of these reports.  Opinions differ, to say the least.

But here’s what I said:

Sponsorship perverts science

However, Dr Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, said it was wishful thinking to assume that companies that make their money selling soda and chips as well as water, juice and oatmeal could provide a “full” picture.

The issue, she said, was not whether FNCE delegates were capable of distinguishing facts from sponsored spin in conference handouts.

She told us: “That’s not the right question. Most people are unaware of how such things influence their opinions. Substantial research on sponsorship by tobacco, drug, and chemical companies provides such evidence. There is not yet as much research on the effects of food industry sponsorship but the few studies that exist are completely consistent with research on other industries.”

It’s stunningly easy to design studies that accomplish these goals

Asked whether it was unfair to automatically dismiss industry-funded research and information rather than judging it on its merits, Nestle said: “In my opinion, agriculture, food, nutrition, and health professionals should dismiss industry-sponsored research out of hand, and journals should not accept industry-sponsored papers. 

“There is only one reason for food companies to sponsor research—so they can use the results in their own interests. 

“Sponsorship perverts science.  Sponsored research is not about seeking truth or adding to public knowledge.  It is about obtaining evidence to defend or sell the sponsor’s product, to undermine research that might suggest that a product is unhealthy, to head off regulation, and to allow the product to be marketed with health claims. 

“It’s stunningly easy to design studies that accomplish these goals and to conduct them in ways that meet the scientific criteria of peer-reviewers.”

She added: “Peer reviewers, journal editors, and readers ought to be asking: Why did the sponsor fund this study?  Was the research question designed to permit an answer that might not meet the sponsor’s goal?  Was the study conducted in a way that permitted an answer against the sponsor’s interest?  Sponsored studies almost always fail these tests of independence.”

I think corporate sponsorship poses huge problems for the credibility of nutrition researchers and nutritionists in general.  The issue requires much more discussion than it has received to date.

Let the debates begin!

  • Michele Hays

    Interesting that you bring this up: I was just having a discussion about fresh vs. canned foods. There are numerous studies that indicate that canned foods, if high in sodium, are equal if not superior in nutrition to cooked fresh foods – but every.single.paper. I found was sponsored by the industry, even the ones done by universities.

    I can see where funders might be important, but can’t we at least blind the researchers to the source of funds? For instance, if researchers were given money to find the nutritional differences between canned and fresh foods without knowing where the money came from until after publication?

    (Even better – it would be nice if we as a culture supported scientific research and had a pool of money for scientists to use.)

  • Mandy Willig PhD RD

    Research free of industry sponsorship is a wonderful goal, but current trends are headed in the complete opposite direction. In an age of sequestration, 7% paylines and little support for government-funded science, new investigators are increasingly convinced that some collaboration with industry is necessary to keep their jobs and fund their salaries. Blinding scientists to the funding source would only work for groups such as Monell, since academic researches are responsible for writing the grants to cover their salaries. This will continue to be an issue as long as the government and public do not commit to fully funding science.

  • NYFarmer

    I don’t see how the “Food Ties That Bind” could be called “a report.” An opinion piece maybe, but not a report.

  • George

    The first of your questions is irrelevant if the answers to the second and third are ‘yes’. instead it should be replaced with “has the result of the study been fairly represented by the abstract and publicity?”
    But this does not seem to be a question that has ever concerned reviewers of papers from any source.

  • Kevin

    The subject of corporate sponsorship towards nutrition can be contradicts sometimes. Take fast food chain for instance, the type of their menu and calories in it. How they mix and provide the insightful to the public can be at times questionable. What then to the sponsorship. Just a thought.

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  • TR

    I totally believe that doing research is in the scope of government.
    Obviously, the armed forces thinks it is. Then, there’s NASA and the CDC… So, how about more research that helps us humans learn how to live healthier lives? So, what if we are safer from foreign foes because of all that research the Army did, when we end up living miserable lives and dying anyway from poor health? So, you’re dying from some mysterious plague? Well, at least the Taliban didn’t get you! Whatever…

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  • expatCanuck

    Any thoughts on (what I’d consider to be) the inherent conflict of interest in having the USDA provide national nutrition guidelines?

    Given the national obesity pandemic, I’d offer that a national mandate for nutrition might more properly belong with the CDC.

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