December 13, 2017
Sugar Daddies of Nutrition Research

Sugar Daddies of Nutrition Research

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  

In August 2015, the New York Times ran an impor­tant front-page article about Coca-Cola’s financial support for the innocent-sounding Global Energy Balance Network and the researchers affiliated with it. The goal of this new organization is to promote the mes­sage that the best way to lose weight is to exercise more, not to cut down on calories. In other words, you can keep drinking sugary Coke, for instance, as long as you work out more. To spread this self-serving and clearly misleading message, the company has funded some big-name researchers who just happen to see things through Coke-colored glasses.

It’s hardly news that food and beverage companies as well as trade associations have increasingly insinuated their way into nutri­tion research and debates about health policy. Thanks largely to their support, the number of studies on food and nutrition has skyrock­eted. True, industry’s role is usually disclosed in small print at the end of the studies. And yes, the funding often comes with no strings attached—that is, the sponsors apparently don’t shape the design, analysis, or publication of the research. But the companies nearly always pick experts whose research benefits their business interests, and it’s hard to believe that such funding doesn’t influence the find­ings, even if only in subtle and unconscious ways.

We’ve reported on some examples of likely corporate influence in food research:

  • Befitting the latest news about Coke, a systematic review of 17 earlier reviews of a virtual avalanche of studies looked at the effect of industry funding on research into the question of whether sugary beverages promote weight gain and obesity. While more than 80 per­cent of non-industry-funded reviews concluded that there is a link, the same proportion of industry-funded reviews found no significant association. That is, reviewers funded by food companies (like Coke, Pepsi, and the sugar industry) were five times more likely to let sugary drinks off the hook than those with no industry ties.
  • Over the years countless observational studies have found that skipping breakfast is associated with weight gain, which has become the common wisdom. No surprise, many of these were sponsored by cereal companies or the egg industry. In contrast, the few clinical trials testing the proposed effect of breakfast on weight control have had inconsistent results (and were less likely to be funded by industry).
  • Much of the research on protein is funded by produc­ers of dairy, beef, pork, soy, eggs, and other high-protein foods. It’s no surprise, then, that the findings usually support higher protein intake.

Ideally, research on nutrition (as well as on medical treatments) should come from people and institutions with no vested interest in the outcome. In the real world, however, industry-sponsored research is needed, since who else would fund the studies in many cases? Research is expensive. But strict guidelines must be enforced to elimi­nate bias—for instance, by making sure that the sponsor isn’t involved in the study’s selection process or interpretation of results; by making all data available to other researchers; and by not allowing studies that yield findings that run counter to the sponsor’s interests to be shelved (called publication bias or the “file drawer effect”). And as a counter­weight to industry influence, Congress should restore full funding to federal research agencies like the NIH and FDA, along with indepen­dent scientists, to produce unbiased health information.