by Marion Nestle
Feb 5 2024

Industry-funded study of the week: marketing, not science

I have long argued that industry funded studies are about marketing, not science.

Here is a prime example (it caught my eye in Food News from the Institute of Food Technologists).

PR Newswire Cornell University partners with Danone and Symbrosia for new study: The study will aim to prove oil-based seaweed product has the potential to be more effective than existing solutions.  Read More

I went right to the source: a press release from Danone, North America: Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Study, in partnership with Symbrosia and Danone North America, Aims to Prove Effectiveness of Seaweed Oil Extract for Livestock Methane Reduction.

Symbrosia, a Hawaii-based cleantech startup that uses seaweed to drastically reduce livestock methane emissions, is excited to announce a study with Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (Cornell CALS), supported by Danone North America, a leading food and beverage company. Designed by Associate Professor Joe McFadden, the study aims to prove the effectiveness of an Asparagopsis-based seaweed oil extract for reducing livestock methane emissions compared to Symbrosia’s existing freeze-dried seaweed products…

As the press release explains, “The team’s plan [is] to ensure the study’s impact on the environment and sustainable agriculture is maximized.”

Thus, the purpose of this study—and the teams’ design plan—is explicit: to prove the superiority of this product.  That’s marketing, not science.

If it were about science, the investigators would design their study to find out which product does a better job of reducing methane emissions, if any.  This may sound like a subtle difference, but it is anything but.

Research on the effects of industry funding—“the funding effect”—shows how easy it is to design studies to give desired answers.  These researchers should be doing everything possible to make sure their study design is as objective as possible.

For a review of this and other research on food industry funding, see my Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.