Industry-backed research ‘much more supportive’ of Big Food

Commercial aid steers research agenda away from public health impacts, Australian study suggests

December 16, 2020
quality control food factory
Source: iStock

Nutrition-related studies undertaken with food industry support are about six times as likely to promote the industry’s interests as research without such involvement, an Australian analysis suggests.

A Deakin University study found that 56 per cent of studies funded, co-authored or otherwise supported by food manufacturers, suppliers or lobbyists reported conclusions “favourable” to the industry.

This compared with just 10 per cent of papers with no declared connection to the industry.

Lead author Gary Sacks said the findings were unsurprising because food companies beholden to shareholders were unlikely to sponsor studies that did not benefit them.

But the analysis highlighted the dangers of over-reliance on funding from industry players. “[They] are only willing to fund things that are of interest to them,” said Dr Sacks, a researcher with Deakin’s Global Obesity Centre.

“That’s a major problem in the long term, as university funding gets tighter and the government pushes researchers to look to industry funding.”

The study, published in the journal Plos One, claims to be the first to systematically examine the food industry’s involvement in peer-reviewed research reported in the leading nutrition and dietetics journals. It examined more than 1,700 articles published in 10 top journals in 2018, of which 196 acknowledged food industry involvement.

These papers were compared with 196 randomly selected studies that reported no industry involvement. Unlike the industry-supported research, most papers in the latter group reported findings that had no relevance to food industry interests.

About 6 per cent of papers in both groups reported conclusions that were unfavourable to the industry, with another 10 per cent in both groups reaching “mixed” conclusions. Dr Sacks said this accorded with a body of research suggesting that industry backing did not influence research methodologies.

“It’s not that they get you to fudge the results,” he said. “Their influence is skewing what research gets done.”

While many studies with no food industry involvement examined topics of little relevance to the industry, such as metabolic processes, industry-supported research tended to focus on “finding some obscure chemical” in marketed products and showing that it “is good for you in some way”.

Dr Sacks said that while any scientific endeavour had innate value, this type of research overlooked diet-related scourges such as diabetes and heart disease. “It’s skewing the research agenda perhaps too far in the direction of things that matter to the food industry rather than things that matter to public health.”

The paper suggests that all food industry research funding could be corralled in an “independently controlled pool of money” and applied to a research agenda developed without industry influence. Such an approach has been used for pharmaceutical research in Italy.

While companies might face an uphill battle convincing their shareholders to support such an idea, Dr Sacks said administrators could frame it as “corporate social responsibility” that enhanced their firms’ images as “good corporate citizens”.

“But if they’re only doing it to influence their profits, you wouldn’t expect them to commit funding to a research pool that wasn’t going to benefit them directly,” he added.

The paper also calls on institutions and journals to adopt policies that limit or regulate industry support of research. Dr Sacks said more research was needed into journal editors’ links with the food industry.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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