How food companies shape the nutrition research agenda
Corporate sponsorship of research can introduce bias in how it is designed, conducted or published.(1, 2) These biases tend to produce research that favours the sponsor’s product by overemphasizing (or maximizing) benefits and / or underemphasizing (minimizing) harms.
Apart from influencing the way research is designed, conducted and published, corporate sponsorship can also influence the research agenda. Bias in the questions asked is particularly important because it can produce evidence that is focused only on certain policy solutions and distract from considering other possible public health strategies. A case in point is Coca-Cola’s attempt to shift the focus of the obesity research agenda by sponsoring studies that focused on physical activity to minimize the role of sugar-sweetened beverages in obesity.(3)
Since a systematic analysis examining whether funding sources influence the nutrition research agenda has not been conducted, we decided to explore this topic and its potential implications. However, analysing this issue turned out to be more challenging than we expected because of the limited transparency of food industry sponsors of research.
Initially, we decided to explore the association between funding sources and research topics analysing the published literature on nutrition and obesity. We identified a sample of 213 trials and a sample of 121 observational studies and from each included study we extracted information on the disclosed sources of funding and on the research topics.(4, 5) However, we found a low proportion of published studies that disclosed food industry funding and this limited the conclusions that we could draw on the association between funding sources and research topics.
This prompted us to choose a different strategy. Instead of relying on funding disclosures in published nutrition research articles, we started from the commercial funders of nutrition research. We analysed the information on funded research projects available on the websites of the major transnational food and beverage companies: Associated British Foods, Coca-Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, Mondelez, Nestle’, Pepsico and Unilever. For all sponsored research projects identified from the websites, we attempted to identify scientific publications that resulted from the projects. For each publication, we extracted information on the disclosed sources of funding and on the research topics.
What did we find?
1. Transparency: out of the ten companies and affiliated research institutes that we analysed, only two (Coca-Cola and the Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science) provided a list of research projects with sufficient detail for our analysis.
2. Research agenda: Among the 204 publications resulting from 37 disclosed research projects, 40.7% focused on physical activity, confirming previous findings from investigative journalism that exposed Coca-Cola’s attempt to shift attention from the role of sugar-sweetened beverages in obesity to the role of sedentary behaviour.(3) We also found a focus on nutrient-specific research questions (22.1%). A research agenda focused on single nutrients rather than foods or dietary patterns may favour food-industry interests because it provides a platform to promote sales claiming that products containing a particular nutrient yield some health advantages.(6) Finally, around 10% of the publications focused on research integrity or research methods. Influencing the standards for scientific research can be another strategy that corporations use to raise doubts about the methods adopted in non-industry funded research.(7)
Why does this matter?
The bottom line is that food companies fund research that supports their profit motives, not to meet the needs of public health. They do this by funding research that can be used to 1) promote their products, 2) distract from their harms, or 3) drive evidence generation towards policy alternatives that will not impact their industry. Moreover, the poor disclosure of food industry sponsorship of research among published studies and on industry websites suggests that transparency about food industry involvement in research is far from optimal. So, although it may be self-evident that food companies will sponsor research that is aligned with their commercial interests, the public health community must constantly question the value of such research for the public.
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Food industry sponsorship of academic research: investigating commercial bias in the research agenda
Alice Fabbri, Taylor J Holland and Lisa A Bero
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2. Barnes DE, Bero LA. Why review articles on the health effects of passive smoking reach different conclusions. JAMA. 1998;279(19):1566-70.
3.O’Connor A. Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets. The New York Times. August 9, 2015. Available at: https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/09/coca-cola-funds-scientists-who-shift-blame-for-obesity-away-from-bad-diets/?_r=0 (Accessed May 2017)
4.Fabbri A, Chartres N, Scrinis G, Bero LA. Study sponsorship and the nutrition research agenda: analysis of randomized controlled trials included in systematic reviews of nutrition interventions to address obesity. Public Health Nutrition. 2016:1-8.
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6. Scrinis G. Nutritionism. Columbia University Press. 2013.
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