01 Aug 16 How industry shapes nutrition science
The Associated Press investigates how marketers are shaping nutrition science…
IT was a startling scientific finding: Children who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who don’t. Less startling was how it came about. The paper, it turns out, was funded by a US trade association representing candy makers.
And its findings were touted by the group even though one of its authors didn’t seem to think much of it.
“We’re hoping they can do something with it — it’s thin and clearly padded,” a professor of nutrition at Louisiana State University wrote to her co-author in early 2011, with an abstract for the paper attached.
The paper nevertheless served the interests of the candy industry — and that’s not unusual. The comment was found in thousands of pages of emails obtained by The Associated Press through records requests with public universities as part of an investigation into how food companies influence thinking about healthy eating.
One of the industry’s most powerful tactics is the funding of nutrition research. It carries the weight of academic authority, becomes a part of scientific literature and generates headlines.
“Hot oatmeal breakfast keeps you fuller for longer,” declared a Daily Mail article on a study funded by Quaker Oats.
“Study: Diet beverages better for losing weight than water,” said a CBS Denver story about research funded by Coke and Pepsi’s lobbying group.
The studies have their defenders. Food companies say they follow guidelines to ensure scientific integrity, and that academics have the right to publish no matter what they find. Many in the research world also see industry funding as critical for advancing science as competition for government funding has intensified.
It’s not surprising that companies would pay for research likely to show the benefits of their products. But critics say the worry is that they’re hijacking science for marketing purposes, and that they cherry-pick or hype findings.
The thinner-children-ate-candy research is an example. It was drawn from a government database of surveys that asks people to recall what they ate in the past 24 hours. The data “may not reflect usual intake” and “cause and effect associations cannot be drawn,” the candy paper authors wrote in a section about the study’s limitations.
The candy association’s press release did not mention that and declared, “New study shows children and adolescents who eat candy are less overweight or obese.”
The headline at cbsnews.com: “Does candy keep kids from getting fat?”
Carol O’Neil, the LSU professor who made the “thin and clearly padded” remark, told The Associated Press through a university representative that data can be “publishable” even if it’s thin. In a phone interview a week later, she said she did not recall why she made the remark, but that it was a reference to the abstract she had attached for her co-author to provide feedback on. She said she believed the full paper was “robust”.
The flood of industry money in nutrition science partly reflects the field’s challenges. Isolating the effect of any single food on a person’s health can be difficult, as evidenced by the sea of conflicting findings.
The ambiguity and confusion has left the door open for marketers.
Since 2009, the authors of the candy paper have written more than two dozen papers funded by parties including Kellogg and industry groups for beef, milk and fruit juice.
Two are professors: O’Neil of LSU and Theresa Nicklas at the Baylor College of Medicine. The third is Victor Fulgoni, a former Kellogg executive and consultant whose website says he helps companies develop “aggressive, science-based claims about their products.”
Their studies regularly delivered favourable conclusions for funders — or as they call them, “clients”.
In a phone interview, Fulgoni said industry-funded studies show favourable results because companies invest in projects with the “best chance of success.” He said any type of funding creates bias or pressure to deliver results.
“The same kind of questions you’re asking me, you should be asking (National Institutes of Health) researchers,” Fulgoni said.
It’s true that industry-funded studies don’t have a monopoly on the problems in scientific research. Still, Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University (and no relation to the food company) said unlike other research, industry-funded studies “are designed and produced to be useful in marketing. The hypotheses are market driven”.
In the past year, 156 of the 168 industry-funded studies Nestle reviewed showed favourable results for sponsors. She said playing up nutritional perks has become a critical marketing tool in the competitive food industry.
“The only thing that moves sales,” she said, “is health claims.”….