by Marion Nestle

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Oct 8 2019 An Exchange with its editor

I am an avid follower of industry newsletters such as, and was intrigued to see one titled “Does bias against company-funded research really serve consumers?When I read it, I was even more amused.  One of my Monday “industry-funded study of the week” posts had triggered it.I found an email address for the editor, Hank Schultz, and wrote him a note that I hoped would open up a conversation.

I’m glad you wrote this and hope it will open up an opportunity for an ongoing conversation about industry-funded research and the conflicts it generates…..I am a constant and grateful reader of your and other Reed newsletters, and greatly admire the consistently outstanding and objective reporting.  I have only one ask: if a study is funded by a company with a vested interest in its outcome, ask your reporters to be sure to state who the funder is.

Mr. Schultz wrote back and after some cordial back-and-forth asked if he could do an interview for the newsletter.  Of course he could.  Here is the result.

Bias inherent in company funded research calls value of evidence into question, critic maintains

By Hank Schultz, 

The results of company funded research are so predictable that the value of the studies is greatly reduced, a prominent critic of the practice says.

In a recent NutraIngredients-USA commentary it was argued that dietary supplement companies that build up a suite of research do so carefully, and plan for success​​. With a careful design of the research program, positive results at the bench can naturally translate into successful randomized, placebo controlled trials.

Longtime critic of industry funded research

Marion Nestle, PhD, nutrition professor at New York University and author of the influential book Food Politics​ as well her most recent work Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, ​ isn’t buying. Nestle responded to NutraIngredients-USA on the subject of the commentary to say that she has reviewed hundreds of company-funded studies and in her view the inherent biases built into that system are next to impossible to overcome.

Indeed, on her blog (also titled Food Politics​) Nestle has a frequent feature called “Industry funded research of the week.” The feature is used to document instances of bias, which to Nestle’s eye are thick on the ground.

“The overriding issue is that industry-funded research almost invariably comes out with results favorable to the sponsor’s interests. This is so predictable that I can often recognize the funder by the title of the paper,”​ Nestle told NutraIngredients-USA.

Nestle noted that the phenomenon is not by any means restricted to research on food and supplement ingredients. It has been noted in studies on tobacco, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

“Studies of these industries show that the influence apparently occurs at an unconscious level; investigators did not intend to be influenced and do not recognize that they were influenced. But the evidence for funding effects is overwhelming,”​ she said.

Bias starts with study design

Nestle said a key issue is how the research question is framed. Companies investing in research naturally want to succeed and get some return on their investment. But the best science doesn’t come when the question is framed in such a way that a positive result is overwhelmingly likely, she said.

“I get letters all the time from trade associations asking for proposals for research that will demonstrate the benefits of their products. That is not the same as asking open-ended questions about effects. Companies want data on benefits for marketing purposes. That’s why I view industry-funded studies as about marketing, not science,”​ Nestle said.

Nestle said she has noted that some of the larger funders, such as the larger food companies or industry associations supporting categories of products like walnuts, almonds, strawberries or what have you, churn out research supporting their products of interest. While some might argue this adds to the totality of evidence and thus could be a good thing, Nestle said she doubts the value of these investments when taking the inherent biases into account. This can result in studies that seek to demonstrate things like substituting junk food calories with a serving of something like almonds or strawberries is a good thing to do. Yes, but so what? In Nestle’s view, this kind of bias is all but inevitable in research funded in this way.

“That’s what decades of research on the effects of drug-industry funding says, and the few studies looking at funding effects in nutrition find similar results,” ​she said.

Independent funding mechanism

What Nestle said she’d like to see is a mechanism for funding research into food and supplement ingredients that was divorced from a marketing plan.

“I want to see a firewall between the funder and the scientist. In ​Unsavory Truth, I talk a lot about various attempts over decades to create such firewalls and develop a pool of industry research funds managed by independent third parties. They have never worked well,”​ she said.

Nestle said she believes that only by making contributions to research compulsory, with the resulting fund to be managed by a credible third party, can research of undeniable quality be done. Something like the Beef Checkoff Program but for independent research funding, even if the results of those studies might not immediately support the marketing of the products.

“My idea of an ethically funded study is to ask for investigator-initiated proposals, appoint third party reviewers who decide who gets funded, and stay completely out of the process from then on. I worry when I see disclosure statements that the funder had no role in the study because that statement has been demonstrated to be false so many times. Food companies are funding research because they want specific results. That’s not how science is supposed to work,”​ Nestle said.

Oct 4 2019

Weekend reading: Why Trust Science?

In the wake of all the media fuss over the “don’t worry, eat meat” papers published on Monday (see my summary), my favorite is a tweet from Naomi Oreskes, one of the authors of Merchants of Doubt, an analysis of the tobacco and chemical industries’ playbook in action.

Thanks Naomi.

I’ve just ordered a copy of her new book.  Can’t wait for it to arrive.

Jul 24 2019

At last: attention to sugar’s role in dental health

I included a chapter on sugar and dental disease in my 2015 book, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning), because billions of people have decayed teeth and other dental problems that could have been kept intact by dental hygiene, fluoride treatment, or—consuming less sugar or sugary drinks.


  • Dental disease has a long history of being overlooked as a public health problem.
  • Sugar has a long history of being ignored as a cause of dental disease.

This may now be changing.

The Lancet has a new series on oral health:

Radical action on oral health will benefit from harnessing a clear global health mandate. Because oral diseases share the main risk factors of other non-communicable diseases (NCDs)—sugar consumption, tobacco use, and harmful alcohol use—oral health should have a stronger place on the global NCDs agenda.

  • Oral diseases: a global public health challenge: Marco A Peres, Lorna M D Macpherson, Robert J Weyant, Blánaid Daly, Renato Venturelli, Manu R Mathur, Stefan Listl, Roger Keller Celeste, Carol C Guarnizo-Herreño, Cristin Kearns, Habib Benzian, Paul Allison, Richard G Watt.  The Lancet, Vol. 394No. 10194.  

Among this article’s key messages:

  • Oral conditions share common risk factors with other non-communicable diseases, which include free sugar consumption, tobacco use, and harmful alcohol consumption, as well as the wider social and commercial determinants of health
  • Of particular concern is the effect of free sugar consumption on the prevalence of caries and overweight or obesity, and associated conditions such as diabetes
  • Recognition is increasing of the influence, power, and effect of the global sugar industry as a threat to public health, which requires tighter regulation and legislation by governments
  • Ending the neglect of global oral health: time for radical action: Richard G Watt, Blánaid Daly, Paul Allison, Lorna M D Macpherson, Renato Venturelli, Stefan Listl, Robert J Weyant, Manu R Mathur, Carol C Guarnizo-Herreño, Roger Keller Celeste, Marco A Peres, Cristin Kearns, Habib Benzian.  The LancetVol. 394No. 10194

In this Series paper, we focus on the need to reduce sugar consumption and describe how this can be achieved through the adoption of a range of upstream policies designed to combat the corporate strategies used by the global sugar industry to promote sugar consumption and profits. At present, the sugar industry is influencing dental research, oral health policy, and professional organisations through its well developed corporate strategies. The development of clearer and more transparent conflict of interest policies and procedures to limit and clarify the influence of the sugar industry on research, policy, and practice is needed. Combating the commercial determinants of oral diseases and other NCDs should be a major policy priority.

A check of dental research organisation websites shows that corporate members of ORCA include Cloetta, a Nordic confectionery company; Unilever, a global consumer goods company that sells ice cream and sugary beverages; and Mars Wrigley Confectionery, a leading manufacturer of chewing gum, chocolate, mints, and fruity confections (through its Wrigley Oral Healthcare Program). Corporate members of the International Association for Dental Research (IADR) include Unilever and Mondelēz International, one of the world’s largest snack companies, whose products include cookies, chocolate, and confectionery. These financial ties are slightly less shocking given the oral health-care products these companies sell: xylitol chewing gum and pastilles (Cloetta), sugar-free gum with xylitol (Mondelēz, Mars Wrigley), and toothbrushes and fluoridated toothpaste (Unilever). Nonetheless, as the dental research community comes to terms with its neglect of sugars intake, these relationships with industry are ripe for scrutiny.  [I’ve written previously about Kearns’ discovery of links between sugar trade associations and dental professional organizations].

Two key strategic aims for a global oral health movement will be to ensure that oral health treatment and prevention services are central to UHC [universal health coverage] and to support global efforts to limit the damage caused by the sugar industry…There is fragmented global action for reducing the damage of the sugar industry and some progress has been made in a number of cities and countries, especially with the introduction of taxes on sugary drinks.  However, there is no united global movement against sugar, as there is against the tobacco industry.

  • Perspective:  Richard Watt: time to tackle oral diseases: Rachael Davies.  The Lancet, Vol. 394No. 10194.  “The mouth really is a marker of people’s social position and future disease risk…and oral diseases are a canary in the coal mine for inequality.”
  • Perspective: Polished smiles and porcelain teeth.  Richard Barnett.  The Lancet, Vol. 394No. 10194. 
This is a history of George Washington’s teeth and the later development of the dental profession, ending with this thought: “in the early 21st century, the great global divide in dentistry remains—as it was in Washington’s day—between the rich and the poor.”

It’s great that The Lancet has finally taken this on.

Here’s The Guardian’s Account.  There should be a lot more press coverage.  Dental conditions affect billions of people throughout the world.

Jan 28 2019

New Lancet report: The Global Syndemic: Uniting Actions to Address Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change

The Lancet has been busy.  Last week, it published a blockbuster report on the need for worldwide dietary changes to improve human health and that of the environment.  I posted about this EAT-Forum report on Friday.

Now, The Lancet releases yet another report, this one taking a unified approach to dealing with the three most important nutrition issues facing the world: Malnutrition (undernutrition), obesity, and the effects of our food production and consumption system on the environment and climate change—for which this report coins a new term: The Global Syndemic.

This report breaks new ground in identifying the food industry as one of three main barriers to ending this “Syndemic.”  I’ve added the numbers for emphasis.

  • Powerful opposition by [1] commercial vested interests, [2] lack of political leadership, and [3] insufficient societal demand for change are preventing action on The Global Syndemic, with rising rates of obesity and greenhouse gas emissions, and stagnating rates of undernutrition.
  • New social movement for change and radical rethink of the relationship between policymakers, business, governance and civil society is urgently needed.
  • The Commission calls for a global treaty to limit the political influence of Big Food (a proposed Framework Convention on Food Systems – modelled on global conventions on tobacco and climate change); redirection of US$5 trillion in government subsidies away from harmful products and towards sustainable alternatives; and advocacy from civil society to break decades of policy inertia.

Wow.  This is telling it like it is—at long last.  From the press release:

  • A key recommendation from the Commission is the call to establish a new global treaty on food systems to limit the political influence of Big Food.
  • The food industry’s obstructive power is further enhanced by governance arrangements that legitimise industry participation in public policy development, and the power that big corporations have to punish or reward governments by relocating investment and jobs.
  • Regulatory approaches to product reformulation (eg. salt and sugar reduction), labelling and marketing to children are needed because industry-led, voluntary approaches have not been effective.


The documents

The press

▪ The Guardian
The Times (London)
Irish Farmers Journal

Additional press, posted January 30

Newswires (syndicated in international outlets):



Rest of world:

Jan 24 2019

Palm oil politics: corporate effects on health

The World Health Organization is about to publish a report on how the palm oil industry is promoting obesity and chronic disease as well as environmental degradation as integral parts of its business model.

The draft report gets right to the point.

We highlight the industry’s mutually profitable relationship with the processed food industry and its impact on human and planetary health, including detrimental cultivation practices that are linked to respiratory illnesses, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and pollution. This analysis illustrates many parallels to the contested nature of practices adopted by the alcohol and tobacco industries.

The research behind the report supports the analytical framework for examining industry’s effects on health.

The report documents how the palm oil industry, working with the food industry, acts to maximize profits at the expense of health and the environment, through marketing, supply chain management, lobbying, and corporate “citizenship.”

The report calls for

  • More research on the effects of palm oil on health
  • Actions to mitigate industry influences to protect producers and sellers from needed regulations
  • Use of the Sustainable Development Goals to aid these actions

You don’t get why palm oil raises health and environmental concerns?  Read this.  Now.


Aug 22 2018

Trump’s trade war with China: the retaliation lists

I have been trying to track what’s happening in our current tariff war with China.  Politico Morning Agriculture helps a lot, but even so keeping up with the rounds of retaliatory tariff impositions is challenging.

Here is our “second tranche” list of Chinese imports subject to tariffs.

The Chinese are retaliating by imposing tariffs on US agricultural exports.  They publish their lists in Chinese, obviously, meaning that we non-speakers must depend on Google Translate [and see note at end].

Fortunately, CNN Money has published a partial list in English of US goods hit by Chinese Tariffs

— Frozen beef
— Fresh or cold pork
— Dried, smoked or salted pork belly
— Frozen chicken nuggets
— Frozen whole duck

Fruit and vegetables
— Farming potatoes
— Mushrooms
— Truffles
— Apples
— Cherries
— Avocados

Dairy products
— Butter
— Cream
— Yogurt

— Frozen red salmon
— Frozen mackerel
— Frozen yellowfin tuna

— Frozen squid
— Lobster
— Canned shark fin
— Octopus
— Sea urchins

— Tobacco cigarettes
— Tobacco cigars

Pet food
— Canned cat food
— Canned dog food

— Whiskey
— Modified ethanol
— Non-frozen orange juice with less than 20% sugar

Its list leaves out baked goods, for example, items of great concern to

A group called Farmers for Free Trade has launched an advertising campaign, “Tariffs Hurt the Heartland.

This is a mess and clearly not good for US agriculture.  President Trump, as I noted earlier, has promised $12 billion in relief.  The administration has not said where that money—which in any case will not be nearly enough—is coming from.

Does anyone know where that money will be taken from?  Which budget line?

Note on Google Translate

A reader writes:

Small correction: the annexes you linked in the newsletter should be titled “Annex XX: List of XX% additional tariff items for the United States. pdf ”

Have you wondered why Canada is dragged into this? =)

In Mandarin the character for “additional” is the same as the abbreviated reference to Canada. It’s not surprising that Google Translate failed to catch this.

Aug 13 2018

Jury rules Roundup carcinogenic, Monsanto malicious: awards $289 million to plaintiff

The Guardian’s account of the verdict: Monsanto ordered to pay $289m as jury rules weedkiller caused man’s cancer

Dewayne Johnson, a 46-year-old former groundskeeper, won a huge victory in the landmark case on Friday, with the jury determining that Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller caused his cancer and that the corporation failed to warn him of the health hazards from exposure. The jury further found that Monsanto “acted with malice or oppression”…Johnson’s case was particularly significant because a judge allowed his team to present scientific arguments. The dispute centered on glyphosate, which is the world’s most widely used herbicide…During the lengthy trial, the plaintiff’s attorneys brought forward internal emails from Monsanto executives that they said demonstrated how the corporation repeatedly ignored experts’ warnings, sought favorable scientific analyses and helped to “ghostwrite” research that encouraged continued usage.

Here’s what this is about:

(1)  The carcinogenicity of Roundup (glyphosate)

In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) ruled that glyphosate, the weed killer used with genetically modified crops, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”  Glyphosate’s maker, Monsanto (now merged with Bayer) did not like this decision and went to work casting doubt on the science.  As IARC explains and documents:

Following the classification of glyphosate in March 2015 as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A) by the IARC Monographs Programme, IARC has been the target of an unprecedented number of orchestrated actions by stakeholders seeking to undermine its credibility. In the interest of transparency, IARC has documented some of these instances, and our responses can be found on the Agency′s Governance website.

(2) What’s at stake for Monsanto

Glyphosate is used in incomprehensibly huge amounts.  The organic advocate, Charles Benbrook, published statistics on its use in 2016.  Monsanto’s published a rebuttal to Benbrook’s paper, but did not dispute his figures; instead, it argued only glyphosate is safe.  Benbrook’s data show that 250 million pounds of glyphosate were applied to US crops in 2014 (by another source, worldwide use was 825,804,000 kilograms, or more than 1.8 billion pounds that year).

(3) What’s at stake for the plaintiff, Dewayne Johnson

As the San Francisco Chronicle’s account explains:

Johnson was a groundskeeper and pest-control manager for Benicia schools from 2012 until May 2016. His job included spraying glyphosate, in the high-concentration brand called Ranger Pro, from 50-gallon drums 20 to 30 times a year for two to three hours a day.

He testified he wore protective clothing, including a sturdy jacket, goggles and a face mask, but said he couldn’t fully protect his face from wind-blown spray. And twice, he told the jury, he got drenched with the herbicide, once when a spray hose became detached from a truck that was hauling it, and another time when a backpack container he was carrying leaked.

After the first drenching in 2014, he said, he got rashes on his skin that did not respond to treatment. Welts and lesions soon appeared on his legs, arms, face and eyelids. His first cancer diagnoses came soon afterward.

(4)  The evidence for the jury’s decision

Through discovery during the trial, documents came to light exposing Monsanto’s efforts to discredit the science linking glyphosate to cancer.

U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) has performed an extraordinary public service by posting the key documents in the case on its website.  There, you can find links to an astonishing number of federal court and discovery documents, exhibits, news reports, and commentary.

Also worth reading: Stacy Malkin’s Secret Documents Expose Monsanto’s War on Cancer Scientists (July 12)

Monsanto was its own ghostwriter for some safety reviews,” Bloomberg reported, and an EPA official reportedly helped Monsanto “kill” another agency’s cancer study. An investigation in Le Monde details Monsanto’s effort “to destroy the United Nations’ cancer agency by any means possible” to save glyphosate.

(5) What this means: Comment from USRTK’s Carey Gillam

Monsanto and its chemical industry allies have spent decades actively working to confuse and deceive consumers, farmers, regulators and lawmakers about the risks associated with glyphosate-based herbicides. As they’ve suppressed the risks, they’ve trumpeted the rewards and pushed use of this weed killer to historically high levels. The evidence that has come to light from Monsanto’s own internal documents, combined with data and documents from regulatory agencies, could not be more clear: It is time for public officials across the globe to act to protect public health and not corporate profits.

(6) What happens next?

Monsanto will appeal, of course; its owner, Bayer, continues to insist that glyphosate is safe.  Press accounts say that hundreds, if not thousands, of more such cases are in the pipeline, a situation similar to that faced by the tobacco industry before that industry gave up and settled.  Will Bayer do so as well?  I’m guessing not without a fight.

Jul 2 2018

Big Soda strong-arms California: no more soda taxes for 12 years. Shame!

In 2017, Jennifer Pomeranz and Mark Pertschuck published an article in the American Journal of Public Health titled State Preemption: A Significant and Quiet Threat to Public Health in the United States.

How right they were.

Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law banning new soda tax initiatives in the state until 2030, thereby preempting local initiatives planned and in progress.

How did this happen?

Raw, overt power politics (my emphasis throughout).  The Sacramento Bee shows how it’s done.

The Hill explains that this bill was a compromise.

The measure was a last-minute compromise to stop an initiative circulated by the beverage industry that would make it more difficult to raise state and local taxes in California.  “Mayors from countless cities have called to voice their alarm and to strongly support the compromise which this bill represents,” Brown wrote in a signing message.

Big Soda’s tactic: use California’s ballot initiative process to put forth a measure requiring a two-thirds majority to pass any new tax legislation.  Brown and those mayors must have assumed it would pass (anything to prevent new taxes).  Brown said he would agree to a 12-year moratorium on new soda taxes if the soda industry would withdraw the measure.  It did, and he signed.

In explaining the so-called “compromise” (in quotes because this was blackmail), US News quotes state senator Scott Wiener (Dem-San Francisco):

This industry is aiming a nuclear weapon at government in California and saying, ‘If you don’t do what we want we are going to pull the trigger and you are not going to be able to fund basic government services.”

In other words, the beverage industry held the state hostage. Like the Sacramento Bee, I’d call this a shakedown.

The Sacramento Bee also called it extortion—a power play by the American Beverage Association that:

appears to be working as intended. As the deadline for signing the state budget approaches this week, a developing trailer bill attached to it would give Big Soda a 12-year ban on local soda taxes in exchange for dropping a ballot initiative that would threaten the finances of cities throughout California. Who says extortion doesn’t pay?

The New York Times explains the “stunning” preemption:

Now the beverage industry has a new approach. Instead of fighting the ordinances city by city, it is turning to states, trying to pass laws preventing any local governments from taxing their products.

The reactions have been fierce.

Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association says, “We’ve seen some cynical moves to protect profits, but this soda tax ban is a new low.”   The American Heart Association issued a statement:

The bill—a last-minute, backroom deal negotiated and written in secret by beverage industry lobbyists and their allies—is a significant step backwards in the ongoing effort to reduce overconsumption of sugary drinks.

“This is one of the worst pieces of legislation I have seen in more than 30 years spent fighting for better health for kids and families,” said Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association. “We could not be more disappointed to see this bill, taken straight from the tobacco industry playbook, pass.”

The LA Times said “Shame on California lawmakers for caving in to the soda industry.”

Salon explains:

There’s a lot at stake for America’s biggest soda companies. Carbonated soft drinks – such as Coke, Fanta, Sprite, and Fresca – make up two-thirds of Coca-Cola’s production, and U.S. soda sales earned the company more than $10 billion in 2015. And PepsiCo’s soda sales – including Pepsi, 7Up, and Mountain Dew – still account for one-quarter of the company’s $38 billion in North American sales, despite a shift toward healthier products. But soda consumption fell to its lowest point in 31 years in the U.S. in 2016, according to Fortune, and Coca-Cola concedes that sweetened beverage taxes “are hurting Coke’s business.”

I’ll end with this quote from the New York Times:

Bill Monning, the Senate majority leader, was one of a handful of Democrats who voted against the bill. He called its passage “unprecedented” and said it would stop cities and counties “from being able to take steps to protect the health of their residents”…“It’s a sad day for democracy in California,” he said. “But ever the optimist I think that the outrage of Big Soda blackmailing the state legislature and the people of California is going to boomerang.”

Let’s make sure that happens.

And while we are at it, don’t let this happen in your state.  If the soda industry threatens to mess with state elections, tell your representatives and governor to resist.  California public health advocates: keep the pressure on.  Advocate for bans on sodas everywhere you can: schools, hospitals, workplaces, government offices.  Expose what the industry is doing to protect its profits at the expense of public health.  Don’t give up.  Courage!

For the record, here’s where to find out more about this shameful episode.