Sponsorship of food companies distorts food research results in half of the cases and scientists fear that these results could end up damaging the health of consumers.
Scientific research on food funded by food companies is much more likely to show the benefits of such products than freelance work, experts from Australia’s Deakin University argue.
Separating the interests of science and business is one of the key factors that makes research truly independent.
However, the influence of corporations on research results is not only common but not always obvious. Most of the time, it is done at the expense of financing work or including employees in research teams.
Processed food manufacturers are the most frequent influencers on research results: they fund scientific articles in 39% of cases.
Researchers from Australia’s Deakin University analyzed 1,461 articles published in the 10 most cited scientific journals on nutrition in 2018.
They found that food manufacturers financed or were otherwise associated with nearly 200 sample items.
About 55% of these studies reported findings that met the commercial interests of the food industry, mostly by testing the benefits of a product or refuting its damage. Among independent studies, there was less than 10% of such research.
The largest number of articles of this type, 28%, is found in The Journal of Nutrition. In a journal called Nutrition Reviews, published by an institute founded and funded exclusively by food companies such as Mars, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, commercial interests were declared in a quarter of all the articles analyzed.
“Both magazines have declared connections to the food industry,” write the authors of the analysis in Plos One magazine.
Researchers have previously linked company engagement with industry-profitable research results. However, the new study reveals the percentage of this participation in the leading nutritional science journals, said lead author Gary Sacks.
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“Unhealthy eating is the leading cause of health problems around the world, which is why the food industry is too important an area for science to allow the influence of corporations,” he said.
“This study shows that business participation distorts results, leading to conclusions that are good for industry, but not for people,” he concluded.
Why Scientific Journals Publish Sponsored Research
Several members of The Journal of Nutrition’s board of directors have disclosed conflicts of interest involving food companies. This journal is published by the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), which has formal partnerships with multiple food companies and has been criticized for supporting the goals of the food industry over and above the interests of public health, the authors noted.
For her part, Teresa Davis, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Nutrition and a pediatric nutritionist, said the journal does not reject papers based on its funding sources.
“I don’t think we should reject the publication on the basis of which institution carried out the study, who financed it, in which country it was carried out,” she said.
Davis notes that industry funding for nutrition research is necessary because government support in the US has been steadily declining for decades.
Sacks agrees that more public and independent funding sources are needed. He suggests that one way to protect the objectivity of research is to pool funding from the industry and have it distributed by an independent body.
“Maybe we could move in that direction, but it’s not that easy to do at the moment,” Davis emphasizes, admitting that it would be an ideal situation.
At the same time, Davis stresses that The Journal of Nutrition follows a very rigorous process to evaluate publications.
However, a rigorous review may not be enough, says Lisa Bero, a pharmacologist at the University of Colorado. She argues that corporations can distort research results in ways that would be impossible to see.
Bero cites four factors that companies can influence to get the results they want: what questions the researchers ask, what the study design is, how the data is interpreted, and whether adverse results are ever published.
“Industry is more likely to fund research that can demonstrate the benefits of your product or disprove its harms,” she says.