Corporate sponsorship ‘risks turning food research into a marketing exercise’

Warning comes after stories about Coca-Cola’s spending on science hit the headlines last year

January 21, 2016
Exhausted marathon runner sitting by Coca-Cola branded vehicle
Source: Alamy
Firm friend: Coca-Cola gave £15.2 million in five years to scientific research

Nutrition research risks turning into a branch of marketing for food and drink companies, a leading critic of corporate sponsored science has warned.

Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, found that only a small fraction of sponsored studies she had analysed would disappoint the companies that funded them.

Writing in JAMA Internal Medicine, she sounded the alarm over the fact that “so much research is sponsored by industry that health professionals and the public may lose confidence in basic dietary advice”.

Declining government research spending meant that “officers of nutrition research societies tell me that they cannot function without industry funding of journals and conferences”, Professor Nestle wrote.

Of 95 studies she has looked at since March last year, just nine did not give results that were favourable to their sponsors, Professor Nestle told Times Higher Education, giving an update on figures cited in her article.

Her warnings come after two New York Times exposés of industry sponsorship last summer that Professor Nestle said had been a “game changer” in raising awareness of the issue. One claimed that Coca-Cola had funded a non-profit organisation to spread the message – with the help of prominent academics – that exercise was more important than diet in preventing obesity.

The second revealed that firms selling genetically modified crops and their organic food industry opponents had enlisted academic scientists in a “food war” for public opinion. In both cases, universities and academics denied that their work had been influenced, and the businesses denied any sinister motives.

Following these stories, Coca-Cola published a list of the research projects and health programmes it had funded. Recipient organisations included a number of US universities. Overall, Coca-Cola said it spent $21.8 million (£15.19 million) in the past five years funding scientific research.

The company also named more than 100 “health professionals and scientific experts” to whom it had paid an average of $38,000 over the past five years to help “support their efforts to share scientific expertise, practical nutrition, physical activity, and lifestyle information with consumers and/or health professionals”. However, “several” recipients refused to allow Coca-Cola to reveal their identities.

In her article, Professor Nestle also says Mars could have left members of the public with the impression that “chocolate is good for them and that its sugar and calories can be ignored” through the way it has promoted the results of studies it has funded that suggest that cocoa flavanols – compounds found in cacao – can help lower blood pressure. Mars failed to respond in time for THE’s deadline.

A key question is whether disclosure of corporate funding can prevent research bias.

“I can’t imagine how you could accept it [funding] and not be influenced by it,” said Professor Nestle. “Research makes clear that people are influenced, and can’t detect that. When you’re dealing with that level of denial, people can’t see it in themselves.”

If food and drink companies genuinely wanted to fund scientific research, she said, they should pool their money and have it distributed by a panel of scientists to reduce the risk of bias and improve the scientific usefulness of funded studies.  

But she thought this was unlikely to happen as it would deprive firms of their influence.

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Print headline: Industry cash may ‘turn food research into marketing’

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