by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Sponsored-research

Feb 25 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: avocados

I love avocados and think they—like all fruits and vegetables—are just fine to eat.

But avocado trade associations want us to eat more avocados.

A reporter sent me correspondence from an executive from a public relations firm that must represent some such trade association.  Over a period of about a month, the PR person sent the reporter four emails.  Here is message #4:

Subject: New avocado research just in time for American Heart Month

Sorry for the nudge – I just wanted to check in one more time to see if you’re working on any heart health related stories in which avocados could be a fit. If so, I thought your readers may find this research helpful. Either way, please let me know and I will stop bugging you 😊

The previous three messages extolled the heart-healthy benefits of eating avocados and offered to connect the reporter to a dietitian (identified by name) “for a phone or email interview to discuss this further and answer any questions.”

None of the messages stated who the PR firm or dietitian were working for.

But take a look at the research article.

The study’s conclusion: “Incorporating fresh Hass avocados in meals can help people achieve dietary recommendations to eat more fruits and vegetables and simple substitution strategies with avocados for carbohydrates can add to the nutrient diversity of the diet and potentially have important cardio-metabolic benefits worthy of investigating further.”

No surprise: “This research was supported by the Hass Avocado Board, Irvine, CA, USA.”  One of the authors “is a member of Avocado Nutrition Science Advisory.”

The reporter’s response to all this, and I quote: “AAAAHGGHGHGH.”

Mine too.

Feb 18 2019

Industry-sponsored research of the week: Cherries

In my book, Unsavory Truth, I mention that I often receive letters from food trade associations requesting research proposals aimed at proving the benefits of their products.

I point out that there is a big difference between calling for research to prove benefits, and open-ended basic research aimed at discovering what the actual effects might be.

Here is a delicious example from the Cherry Research Committee of the Cherry Marketing Institute:

All proposed research should be hypothesis-driven, and would strive to establish an association or to document a direct relationship between the consumption of tart cherry phytonutrients (when consumed as whole tart cherries or processed tart cherry products) and reduced risk, prevention, or improved treatment of a disease or condition of significant public interest. The study design should also examine a possible
cellular/molecular mechanism of the treatment effects.

And here’s an example of cherry-benefit research in action:

Title: Effects of Tart Cherry Juice on Biomarkers of Inflammation and Oxidative Stress in Older Adults.  Chai SCDavis KZhang ZZha LKirschner KF.  Nutrients. 2019 Jan 22;11(2). 

Conclusion: “The present study suggests that the ability of tart cherry juice to reduce systolic BP [blood pressure] and LDL cholesterol [the bad kind], in part, may be due to its anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. Larger and longer follow-up studies are needed to confirm these findings.”

Grant support: Cherry Research Committee of the Cherry Marketing Institute

Comment:  As the press release explains:

Montmorency tart cherry juice helped lower systolic blood pressure and LDL or “bad” cholesterol in older adults by reducing certain biomarkers of inflammation and oxidative stress in older adults, according to a new study published in Nutrients. Larger and longer follow-up studies are needed to confirm these findings.

I posted another cherry-funded study early in December.

I love cherries.  They are delicious, but this is marketing research, not basic science.

…Thanks to Casey Palmer for sending all this.

Feb 4 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: chewing gum again

You must not be chewing enough gum.  Mars-Wrigley wants you to chew more of it.  How best to do that?  Fund research (for evidence, see my most recent book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat).

Citation: A 3-month mastication intervention improves recognition memory, by Curie Kima, Sophie Miquelb and Sandrine Thureta. Nutrition and Healthy Aging xx (2019) x–xx (in press).

The study:  “53 participants aged 45–70 years old were required to chew mint-flavoured sugar free chewing gum for 10 minutes, 3 times a day over 3 months. Pattern separation and recognition memory was measured using the Mnemonic Similarity Task. Questionnaires were administered to measure changes in mood, anxiety, and sleep quality.”

Results: “Extended periods of mastication gave rise to a significant improvement in recognition memory compared to a non-chewing control group.”

Funding: “This work was supported by Mars Wrigley Confectionery.”  “SM is an employee of Mars Wrigley Confectionery (Chicago, IL). The chewing gum used for the intervention was provided by Mars Wrigley Confectionery.”

Comment: This industry seems to be working hard to convince you that chewing gum is good for you; this is the second time I’ve posted an industry-funded study (here’s the first).

Maybe I would remember names and faces better if I chewed gum?  Sugarless, of course.

Jan 31 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: coffee protects DNA

I love coffee (preferably not over-roasted) and have long been convinced that it is not a health risk (more on that in the comment below).  But a miracle drug?

As I discuss in Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, industry-funded research almost invariably produces conclusions that favor the sponsor’s marketing interests, as this one does.

Title: Consumption of a dark roast coffee blend reduces DNA damage in humans: results from a 4-week randomised controlled study  Dorothea Schipp, Jana Tulinska, Maria Sustrova, Aurelia Liskova, and 10 others.  European Journal of Nutrition, published online 17 November 2018.

Purpose: “To determine the DNA protective effects of a standard coffee beverage in comparison to water consumption.”

Conclusions: “Our results indicate that regular consumption of a dark roast coffee blend has a beneficial protective effect on human DNA integrity in both, men and women.”

Funding: “This study has been supported by Tchibo GmbH, Hamburg, Germany” [Tchibo is a German coffee company].

Conflict of interest: “D. Schipp is a self-employed statistician, who has been appointed and financed by Tchibo GmbH for this and other projects.”

Comment: this study was designed to demonstrate coffee’s protective effects, and did so.  Here’s what I wrote about coffee in What to Eat:

There is something abut coffee–perhaps just the caffeine–that makes researchers try hard to find something wrong with it.  My files are full of papers claiming that coffee raises the risk for heart disease, heartburn, cancer, infertility, fetal growth retardation, spontaneous abortion, breast lumps, osteoporosis, ulcers, and any number of other health problems, but the observed effects are so small and so inconsistent that the studies are not very convincing.  Instead, well-designed studies tend to show no harmful effects…Complicating an overall assessment of the health effects of coffee are studies showing the benefits of drinking it…As with so many studies of foods and health, research on coffee and health is hard to do.

Bottom line: If you like drinking coffee, enjoy.

Thanks to Daniel Skavén Ruben for sending this one.

 

 

Jan 29 2019

My latest honor: “Crankster!”

I don’t usually pay attention to what the American Council for Science and Health (ACSH) says or does, mainly because it is a long-standing front group for the food and chemical industries, and it predictably supports the interests of those industries over public health (see US Right to Know’s analysis).

But then I read this from the Center on Media and Democracy: Corporate Front Group, American Council on Science and Health, Smears List of Its Enemies as “Deniers for Hire.”

Smeared by the site are scientists Tyrone Hayes, Stephanie Seneff, and Gilles-Éric Séralini; New York Times reporter Danny Hakim and columnist Mark Bittman; well-known food and science writer Michael Pollan; nutrition and food studies professor Marion Nestle; public interest groups like U.S. Right to Know, Greenpeace, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sierra Club, the Environmental Working Group, and Union of Concerned Scientists; past and present CMD staff, and many other individuals ACSH does not like.

Clearly, I’m in good company.  But what, exactly, have I—a “Crankster,” apparently—done to deserve this honor?  It seems that I:

What can I say?  Read my work and decide for yourself if such concerns are justified.

Jan 21 2019

Industry-funded request of the week: prove peanuts healthy

Peanuts are delicious when freshly roasted—I always keep some on hand—and they are highly nutritious, despite their calories.

But the peanut industry must not think sales are high enough (oh those sales-inhibiting peanut allergies).

Its trade group, The Peanut Institute, has issued a Call for Research Proposals.

We are currently requesting human peanut nutrition research proposals with an emphasis on the effect of consuming peanuts, peanut butter, and other peanut products on: (1) cognition/brain health, (2) chronic disease risk and outcomes, (3) diet quality, and (4) gut microbiome in various populations. Other research areas that increase the understanding of peanut consumption and human health are encouraged. All novel and noteworthy proposals that advance the health and wellness message of peanuts will be reviewed [my emphasis].

The Peanut Institute is not interested in funding open-ended research exploring the effects of peanuts on health.

Instead, it intends only to consider proposals designed to prove benefits.  This is marketing research, not basic science.

As I demonstrated in Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, the basic observation is this: industry-funded research almost always favors the sponsor’s product.

I discuss similar requests from other trade groups in that book.  Guess what.  The funders usually get what they ask for.

Jan 7 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: Mediterranean diet plus dairy foods

Christopher Gardner, the Stanford scientist who studies the ways various dietary patterns affect body weight, sent me this study to add to my post-book collection (I wrote about such things in Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, just out).

Soon after Dr. Gardner sent this to me, I read about this study in DairyReporter.com.  Its account had this headline: “Mediterranean diet with added dairy shown to improve heart health in Australia.”  It said nothing about funding source (it should have).

The study:

Title: A Mediterranean diet supplemented with dairy foods improves markers of cardiovascular risk: results from the MedDairy randomized controlled trial.  Alexandra T Wade, Courtney R Davis, Kathryn A Dyer, Jonathan M Hodgson, Richard J Woodman, and Karen J Murphy.  Am J Clin Nutr 2018;108:1166–1182.

Rationale: The Mediterranean diet (MedDiet) “may not meet Western recommendations for calcium and dairy intake.”  Translation: Australians don’t eat enough dairy foods.

Objective: Determine the effect of a MedDiet supplemented with dairy foods (MedDairy) on blood pressure and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Design:  The study compared the effects of consuming two different diets, (1) a MedDiet with 3–4 daily servings of dairy (MedDairy) versus (2) a lowfat control diet (LowFat).

Results: Participants on MedDairy reduced their blood pressure and other CVD risk factors.

Conclusion:  “The MedDiet supplemented with dairy may be appropriate for an improvement in cardiovascular risk factors in a population at risk of CVD.”

Funding: “Supported by a Dairy Australia Research Grant.”

Dr. Gardner’s comments: the study does not compare the MedDiet to MedDairy.  Instead, it compares MedDairy to LowFat—whatever people habitually eat, but restricted in fat.

In this study, compared to the LowFat group, the MedDairy group ate:

  •  More fat
  •  Less refined grain
  •  More legumes
  •  Less red meat
  •  More meat substitutes
  •  More nuts and seeds
  •  And, yes, more dairy (mostly yogurt)

Even so, the LowFat group lost more fat mass and gained more lean body mass than did the MedDairy group, but the authors do not mention that in the abstract and don’t make a big deal about it.

But they do say this in their discussion:

However, the use of an LF [LowFat] control diet may limit the generalizability of our results, as well as our capacity to evaluate the benefits of adding dairy to a traditional MedDiet.

Precisely.

Dec 17 2018

Industry-funded study of the week: Hazelnuts

My most recent book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, provides many examples of industry-funded studies with results favorable to their sponsor’s marketing interests.  This “funding effect” shows up mostly in the framing of the research question.

Here is this week’s example, one so explicitly designed to sell hazelnuts that you can guess the funder from the title.

The study: Alexander J Michels, Scott W Leonard, Sandra L Uesugi, Gerd Bobe, Balz Frei, and Maret G Traber.  Daily Consumption of Oregon Hazelnuts Affects α-Tocopherol Status in Healthy Older Adults: A Pre-Post Intervention Study. J Nutr 2018;148:1924–1930.

Methods: Subjects consumed ∼57 g hazelnuts/d and were asked to refrain from eating all other nuts, seeds, and many vitamin E– and magnesium-rich food items.

Results: Hazelnut consumption increased concentrations of the urinary α-tocopherol [Vitamin E] metabolite…In addition, hazelnut consumption increased serum concentrations of magnesium.

Conclusions: Consuming hazelnuts improves a biomarker of vitamin E status in older adults…thus, hazelnuts should be considered as part of a healthy dietary pattern.

Funding: Supported by the Oregon State University Foundation (to BF) and the Hazelnut Marketing Board of Oregon (to BF).

My Comment: I love hazelnuts for their crunch and how they taste.  They have nutrients.  If you don’t eat anything else with vitamin E or magnesium, eating them will of course increase your consumption of those nutrients, and you don’t need a clinical trial to prove it.

That’s why I think studies like this are more about marketing than science.  A news account—although it reads like a press release–-quotes co-author Alex Michels:

Not that we think Oregon hazelnuts are much different than other sources…but now the booming crop that we have in this state finally has science behind it. Perhaps other benefits of Oregon hazelnuts are awaiting future study.