by Marion Nestle
Mar 4 2016

Julia Belluz (Vox) on my collection of studies sponsored by food companies

Julia Belluz of Vox has just done a story on my collection of studies funded by food companies.  Here are a few excerpts.  For the entire article and its excellent illustrations, click on the link):

About a year ago, Marion Nestle finally got sick of the rotten state of nutrition science.

Everywhere she looked, she found glaring conflicts of interest. “Without any trouble, I could identify industry-funded nutrition studies by their titles,” says the New York University professor. “It was so obvious”…But Nestle is not the first to notice this problem. Many nutrition researchers have been complaining about conflict-of-interest problems in their field for some time now. Whereas other fields, like medicine, have been putting in place safeguards to protect against undue industry influence, the field of nutrition has lagged behind in this regard.  And other research backs up Nestle’s findings. Take this review of studies on sugary drinks. Independently funded studies tend to find a correlation between soda consumption and poor health outcomes. Studies funded by soda makers, by contrast, are less likely to find such correlations. Or take this investigation of 206 publications on the health effects of milk, soft drinks, and fruit juices. Studies that were funded by beverage companies were four to eight times more likely to come to favorable conclusions about the health effects of those beverages.

The reporter interviewed researchers who work in food and nutrition about all this.

They all acknowledged that she was tapping into a real problem, one that’s been difficult for their community to address.  So why are conflicts of interest allowed to persist in nutrition research?  One root cause is the need for funding. Right now nutrition science is relatively underfunded by government, leaving lots of space for food companies and industry groups to step in and sponsor research…Tradition also plays a role. “Nutrition science has always been close to producers,” Dutch nutrition researcher Martijn Katan told me. “There’s such a direct interest in the outcomes of research for producers”…And food companies have ample incentive to promote this research. Under Food and Drug Administration rules, any health claims that they want to make on their packaging has to be backed up by scientific research. So the food industry has a keen interest in funding research — and favorable research that their profits may depend on.

She quotes Martijn Katan:

In the long term,” Katan said, “the deepest harm being done is that it undermines the credibility of science. In the short term, it means some people will eat more butter or cheese than is good for them, and that it will take longer to get people off soda.”

Her conclusion:

None of the researchers I spoke to suggested we should abolish industry funding of food and nutrition studies. As Katan has written, these collaborations can lead to fruitful discoveries…Instead, they wanted to see more awareness about the problem, more scrutiny of industry-funded research, and organized efforts to control conflicts of interest. “It’s not the quality of the science that’s at issue,” Nestle explains. “The studies are carried out according to strong scientific principles. But the bias seems to come in around the research question that’s asked, the interpretation of the results, putting a positive spin on findings even when the results are neutral.” That’s not good for science or for public health.