Should You Trust Food Studies?

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By Gillie Houston Posted June 03, 2016

A new report reveals the extent to which research is funded by industry.

It seems like every day a buzzy new study touts a surprising fact about how food affects our bodies, and publications—including this one, admittedly—eat it up. Now, a new report by the Associated Press has uncovered something that shouldn't really surprise us: Much of this research is funded by food manufacturers with clear agendas.

We're used to reading about studies that reach counterintuitive conclusions, like "children who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who don't." In the case of this non-hypothetical example, the research was paid for by a trade association representing the makers of Butterfinger, Hershey and Skittles—a group that would obviously like us to believe that it's OK to eat candy. This investigation found that one of the study's authors, a professor of nutrition at Louisiana State University, called the results "thin and clearly padded." The sugary association proudly touted the results nevertheless.

Nutrition research is one of the food industry's most powerful public relations tools. Food companies claim to ensure scientific integrity by following the proper guidelines and giving academics the right to publish their results whether or not the findings are in the organization's favor. But the A.P. found that of 156 food studies published in the last year, 168 were favorable toward the groups that funded them.

The candy industry isn't the only one getting in on the action. Coke and Pepsi's lobbying group funded research that seemed to show that diet drinks were better for losing weight than water, while the Quaker Oats Center of Excellence (which is owned by PepsiCo) funded a study that found eating hot oatmeal for breakfast keeps you fuller longer. This issue was at the center of last week's New York Times story titled "Sorry, There's Nothing Magical About Breakfast." The author suggests that the majority of research touting breakfast as the most important meal of the day was sponsored by companies with a stake in the breakfast food industry.

"As with many other nutritional pieces of advice, our belief in the power of breakfast is based on misinterpreted research and biased studies," Aaron E. Carroll writes. "It does not take much of an effort to find research that shows an association between skipping breakfast and poor health."

As competition for government research funds has become more fierce, private funding has become common in the research world. But some institutions are taking a stand against industry involvement. The University of Colorado returned a $1 million donation from Coca-Cola following reports that the executive director of their Anschutz Health and Wellness Center had taken $550,000 from the company and landed his son a job at Coke. But many other institutions have intensified their deals with food makers. The researchers who performed the candy study previously mentioned have written more than two dozen reports funded by industry groups for milk, fruit, and beef, as well as companies like Kellogg.

Sponsored research isn't likely to go anywhere any time soon, and for some the concern extends beyond marketing manipulation. Deborah Zarin, who oversees the registry at the National Institutes of Health fears that scientific data as a whole is being distorted by unreported unfavorable research results. "That's part of science. You publish the result you get. You don't just publish the results you want," Zarin says. But if that result comes at a price to the makers of, say, some of America's favorite candy brands, they might be swept under the science lab's rug.

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