by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Sponsored-research

Aug 12 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: Unilever

A low-fat spread with added plant sterols and fish omega-3 fatty acids lowers serum triglyceride and LDL-cholesterol concentrations in individuals with modest hypercholesterolaemia and hypertriglyceridaemia.  Blom AM, et al.  European Journal of Nutrition.  2019;58(4):1615–1624.

Purpose: “to investigate the triglyceride (TG) and LDL-cholesterol (LDL-C) lowering effects of a spread [i.e., margarine] with added plant sterols (PS) and fish oil as compared to a placebo spread.”

Conclusions: “Four-week consumption of the intervention spread led to significant and clinically relevant decreases in serum TG, LDL-C and other blood lipid concentrations.”

Funder: The study was funded by Unilever BCS Research and Development Vlaardingen, the Netherlands.

Conflicts of interest: of the authors, four are employed by Unilever.

Comment: Unilever makes margarines with plant sterols and fish oils.  You might buy them if they control blood lipid risk factors for heart disease.  This is in-house company research aimed at proving the benefits of a Unilever product, which is what so many other companies do.

But Unilever was one of the few Big Food companies that sponsored basic research (and maybe it still does?).  As I describe in my book, Unsavory Truth, Unilever was the sponsor of the basic research that demonstrated the harmful effects of trans-fat on disease risk.

Aug 5 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: “probiotic” weight-loss supplement

I spotted some tweets about this study from Washington Post writer Tamar Haspel, who has a sharp eye for this sort of thing.  Her first tweet said:

Her second tweet explained the problem:

So of course I had to look up the study.  It’s not one I would ordinarily have noticed because its title does not use the word “probiotic,” which typically refers to the live bacteria (in yogurt, for example).  The evidence for benefits of probiotics is iffy, so this study raises lots of questions.

Let’s take a look at it:

The Study:  Supplementation with Akkermansia muciniphila in overweight and obese human volunteers: a proof-of-concept exploratory study. Depommier C, et al.  Nature Medicine (2019

Conclusion: I’ve left out the statistics to make this easier to read:  “Compared to placebo, pasteurized A. muciniphila improved insulin sensitivity…, and reduced insulinemia…and plasma total cholesterol…. Pasteurized A. muciniphila supplementation slightly decreased body weight…compared to the placebo group, and fat mass…and hip circumference…compared to baseline….In conclusion, this proof-of-concept study…shows that the intervention was safe and well tolerated and that supplementation with A. muciniphila improves several metabolic parameters.”

Competing interests:  Five of the authors “are inventors of patent applications…filed with [patent offices in at least 12 countries]…dealing with the use of A. muciniphila and its components in the context of obesity and related disorders.” Two of the authors are cofounders of A-Mansia Biotech S.A., a Belgian company that sells A. muciniphila supplements, presumably as weight-loss supplements.

Comment: As Haspel points out, the subjects in this study were given either (a) live bacteria, (b) Pasteurized (and, therefore, mostly dead) bacteria, or (c) a placebo.  The Pasteurized ones were associated with metabolic benefits and weight loss.  Pasteurization is what gets done to milk to kill most—not all—of the living bacteria it contains.  In this study, Pasteurized bacteria had the same effect on the microbiome as the unpasteurized.  The point of the study was to show that the Pasteurized supplement would induce weight loss; the observed loss, however, was not statistically significant.   Nature Medicine‘s editors should know better.  So should the New York Times’ editors.  Haspel points out that the New York Times account of the study accepted its conclusion uncritically, headlining it “A Probiotic for Obesity?”  At least the headline included a question mark.  The article did not mention the authors’ patents or conflicts of interest; it should have.

Bottom line: If you want to keep your microbiome healthy, eat a healthy diet.

Jul 29 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: Hass Avocados again

The study: Using the Avocado to Test the Satiety Effects of a Fat-Fiber Combination in Place of Carbohydrate Energy in a Breakfast Meal in Overweight and Obese Men and Women: A Randomized Clinical Trial.  Zhu L, et al.  Nutrients 2019, 11, 952; doi:10.3390/nu11050952.

Conclusions: Replacing carbohydrates in a high-carbohydrate meal with avocado-derived fat-fiber combination increased feelings of satiety mediated primarily by PYY [peptide YY] vs. insulin. These findings may have important implications for addressing appetite management and metabolic concerns.

Funding: This research was supported by the Hass Avocado Board, Irvine, CA, USA.

Comment: Why does the Hass Avocado Board fund studies like this?  Because it generates headlines like this one: “Study finds avocados curb appetite and help with weight loss.

Oops.  This is not what the study actually found.  As I learned from Obesity and Energetics Offerings (an exceptionally useful weekly compendium of articles having to do with energy balance), the discrepancy between what the study’s findings and what got reported merited its inclusion in OEO’s “Headline vs. Study” category.

Sponsored research is often about headlines, not science.

It’s also about advertising.  Here’s an ad that the Hass Avocado people sent out to all members of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  Although the Academy noted this was an advertisement, here’s what it looked like (thanks to my colleague Lisa Sasson for sending):

I love avocados but wish the Hass people would stick with how delicious they are and fund research on something more useful, like resistance to pests or climate change, maybe.

No such luck.  Here’s the request for proposals I just received:

The Hass Avocado Board seeks short letters of intent for the following nutrition research:

Observational data to characterize the relationship between avocado intake and incidence of diabetes and associated risk factors

  • RFP’s are due August 16 and can be mailed to Proposals received after the deadline will not be considered.
  • Direct funding limit is $50,000 with 10% indirect funding allowance
  • The decision for funding will be determined by reviews by external experts and current research priorities
  • Research must adhere to the Hass Avocado Board’s guiding principles

Thank you,
Nikki A Ford, PhD
Senior Director of Nutrition
Avocado Nutrition Center, Hass Avocado Board


Jul 22 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: Walnuts

Replacing Saturated Fat With Walnuts or Vegetable Oils Improves Central Blood Pressure and Serum Lipids in Adults at Risk for Cardiovascular Disease: A Randomized Controlled‐Feeding Trial.  Alyssa M. Tindall, et al. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2019;8:May 7, 2019.

Conclusions: “Replacing saturated fatty acids (FAs) with 57 to 99 g/d of walnuts for 6 weeks reduced central diastolic blood pressure compared with a diet similarly low in saturated FAs but with lower α‐linolenic acid content…This study represents a feasible food‐based approach for replacing saturated FAs with unsaturated FAs (including α‐linolenic acid) from walnuts and vegetable oils, demonstrating that relatively small dietary changes can reduce cardiovascular risk.

Funding: This study was funded by the California Walnut Commission…The California Walnut Commission provided funds for the research conducted. The commission’s staff was not involved with any aspects of conducting the study, analyzing the data, or interpreting the results reported in this article.

Comment: Walnuts, like pretty much all other nuts and seeds, contain healthy fats and other nutrients.  When substituted for unhealthier foods, they would be expected to demonstrate improvements.  This study contributes no new information and there is only one reason to do it: marketing (as I discuss in Unsavory Truth).  The California Walnut Commission wants you to eat more walnuts.  Trade associations or producers of pecans, macadamia nuts. pistachios, almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, and any other nut you can think of have the same goal.  Do they all have to do this kind of research?  Apparently so.

Mixed nuts, anyone?

Jul 15 2019

Industry-funded studies: The Sugar Association’s view

You may think, as I do, that everyone would be better off eating less sugar, but that’s not how The Sugar Association sees it.  This trade association for sugar producers funds research to demonstrate that eating sugar is a good thing and not harmful.

Here’s what The Sugar Association says:

The Sugar Association is committed to transparent engagement with researchers, external partners and consumers to address knowledge gaps and support independent, peer-reviewed science. Recent literature suggests this framework, rooted in transparency and communication and reflected in our Operating Principles, leads to increased public confidence in industry-funded research,* a goal the organization is working to achieve.

The asterisk refers to Achieving a transparent, actionable framework for public-private partnerships for food and nutrition research, a consensus report written by, among others, representatives of the International Life Sciences Institute, a well known front group for the food industry, and other organizations with ties to food companies.

The Sugar Association lists some of its recent publications [you can’t make this stuff up]:

Nutrition Today Supplement: Sweet Taste Perception and Feeding Toddlers. March/April 2017 – Volume 52 [The Sugar Association funded the conference that resulted in this supplement, which it also funded].

Jul 9 2019

An exchange with Ray Goldberg about sponsorship and trust

Ray Goldberg, Harvard Business School Professor of Agribusiness, Emeritus, but still running a seminar that I have attended annually for about 25 years, often challenges me to think more constructively about how food businesses should respond to pressures from public health advocates. His 2018 book, Food Citizenship (for which I was interviewed and videotaped) illustrates some of the back-and-forth we have had over the years.

Recently, in response to my “industry-funded study of the week” posts, he sent me several thought-provoking questions, which I respond to here with his permission.

RG: How can the private sector support nutrition research without being accused of a conflict of interest?

MN: With great difficulty. Industry-sponsored research is inherently conflicted when research questions are designed for marketing purposes, which much—if not most—industry-sponsored research now is. Such research almost invariably produces results that favor the sponsor’s interests. As I explain in Unsavory Truth, I get letters all the time from trade associations requesting proposals for research projects to demonstrate the benefits of the products they represent. There is a big difference between designing a study to demonstrate benefits (a marketing question) and one asking an open-ended what-happens question (basic research). If companies want to fund basic research, they could contribute to a common pool administered by an independent third party such as the NIH. But food companies don’t want to take the risk of paying for research that might come out with inconvenient results. In my book, I suggest taxing food companies to create a research fund that would be administered independently. That’s the only way I can think of that would work.

RG: How does the consumer end up having confidence in the statements of those in the food system who really do have integrity and who really care about their customers and society and the environment? I trust the Wegmans because I know them personally. How does the Food System build back trust?

MN: It’s interesting that you mention Wegmans (I often shop in the one in Ithaca). It is a family-owned business, not publicly traded. I recall hearing Danny Wegman explain the advantage of family ownership at one of your seminars. It’s not that family members don’t want to make money; it’s that they don’t have to be greedy .  They can do things for their customers that publicly traded supermarkets cannot. As long as Wall Street expects food companies to make a profit and to grow their profits every 90 days, companies must respond by pushing their most highly profitable products every way they can, regardless of whether poor health is collateral damage. If companies want the public to trust them, they have to be trustworthy.  But investors don’t reward integrity; they reward profits.

RG: The food system needs people who care about the health of people, plants, animals and our environment but who is providing the leadership that you and others want in that system?

MN: If they want to sell products, large food product companies (Big Food) has to appeal to public demands for health and sustainability.  They are trying to move the Titanic as quickly as they can and still maintain the same profit margins. Big Ag is way behind. I’m seeing a worldwide consensus that we need food system approaches to solve world food problems.  These firmly link agricultural policy to health and environmental policy so as to address hunger, obesity, and climate change. at the same time.  A largely, but not necessarily exclusively, plant-based diet does that and it’s what all food policies should promote.  At the moment, American agriculture and dietary guidelines are outliers in ignoring those linkages. We badly need to catch up.  I see international leadership on this issue, but not here.  Is Harvard training food business leaders to address these needs?  You tell me where the American leadership is. I don’t see it coming from the top.  It has to be bottom up.  Fortunately, lots of young people are interested in food issues and the leadership is going to have to come from them.


Jul 8 2019

Industry-funded review of the week: Seafood!

Seafood intake and the development of obesity, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.  Bjorn Liaset, Jannike Øyen, Hélène Jacques, Karsten Kristiansen and Lise Madsen. Nutrition Research Reviews (2019), 32, 146–167.

Conclusion: Evidence from intervention trials and animal studies suggests that frequent intake of lean seafood, as compared with intake of terrestrial meats, reduces energy intake by 4–9%, sufficient to prevent a positive energy balance and obesity. At equal energy intake, lean seafood reduces fasting and postprandial risk markers of insulin resistance, and improves insulin sensitivity in insulin-resistant adults… More studies are needed to confirm the dietary effects on energy intake, obesity and insulin resistance.”

Funding: The present review was financially supported by The Norwegian Seafood Research Fund…The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Comment:  It is understandable that the Norwegian seafood industry would support research to promote seafood consumption.  Seafood is a demonstrably good source of animal protein but how good, how essential, and how environmentally sustainable are highly debatable.  To the authors’ credit, they acknowledge the debate when they admit that “more studies are needed….”  Industry-funded studies tend to put a positive spin on equivocal research, as this one does [I provide evidence for these views in Unsavory Truth].

Jul 1 2019

Industry-funded study of the week: grains exonerated!

Perspective: Refined Grains and Health: Genuine Risk, or Guilt by Association? Glenn A Gaesser.  Adv Nutr. 2019 May 1;10(3):361-371.

Conclusion: This literature analysis illustrates a pitfall of attributing health risks to specific food groups based primarily on analysis of dietary patterns. With regard to refined grains, a large and consistent body of evidence from meta-analyses of prospective cohort studies suggests that the assumed health risks are largely a consequence of guilt by association with other foods within the Western dietary pattern, and not to refined grains per se.

Funding: Preparation of this manuscript was supported in part by a grant from the Wheat Foods Council and Grain Foods Foundation. Author disclosure: GAG is a member of the scientific advisory boards of the Grain Foods Foundation, the Wheat Foods Council, and Ardent Mills.

Comment:  The author set out to counter a recommendation of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee that to improve dietary quality, it’s better to replace most refined grains with whole grains.  Refining whole grains removes the great majority of their vitamins, minerals, and fiber (fortified flour replaces some of the nutrients, but not all).  Furthermore, refined grains are the main ingredients in many ultra-processed junk foods that promote overeating calories and raise risks for chronic disease.  Wheat per se may not be the problem, but what about the foods made from it?  I keep thinking: “grain-based desserts,” the number one contributor to calories in the American diet, according to the Dietary Guidelines.

Why do studies like this?  So the Texas Wheat Association can issue this headline: “New study exonerates refined grains.”

Want details and references on these contentions?  I provide them at length in Unsavory Truth.