The Industry Playbook | How Food Companies Distort Nutrition Science (Part I)
This is the first installment in a series about how food industry meddling biases nutrition science research to its advantage and at the expense of our health. In this dispatch, we lift the veil on food manufacturers’ corruption of scientific authority, and we show you how to tell good research from bad.
In December of 2019, researchers from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine published a study in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine that was sensational enough to be picked up by the Washington Post. They found that, since 2010, more than half of the research on eggs and blood cholesterol levels had been sponsored by the egg industry itself.
I consider myself fairly hardened to the egregiousness of food and agricultural industries, but the PCRM study nonetheless shocked me. The sheer extent of the egg industry’s influence over the cholesterol research agenda is hard to fathom, and the results are fairly predictable: fewer egg industry-funded studies reported that eggs significantly raise cholesterol compared to studies funded independently. And even though 86% of the industry-funded studies did find that eggs raise blood cholesterol, half of that 86% drew conclusions denying the connection between cholesterol levels and egg intake.
Sadly, this example is emblematic of a larger trend toward nutrition studies being designed with the purpose of producing outcomes that support a particular industry’s or company’s marketing goals. It’s just one part of the “industry playbook” that Dr. Marion Nestle, professor emerita at New York University, describes in her book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.
According to Nestle, the playbook consists of seven main strategies:
casting doubt on independent and rigorous nutrition science (in other words, the very basis of our knowledge on healthy diets)
commissioning studies to counteract inconvenient truths about industrial foods
courting and schmoozing academics and other scientists with gifts or consulting gigs
using front groups (like the International Life Sciences Institute) to give their talking points an air on legitimacy
lobbying against profit-threatening regulation
pushing a “personal responsibility” narrative to shift blame away from industry machinations
weaponizing the legal system to challenge critics and regulators
And, though we opened with an example from the egg industry, it is far from only animal agricultural industries following this script. We all know that eating a diet rich in whole plant foods is critical to our health, but producers of individual crops want you to consume more of their product over just-as-healthy alternatives. It’s not uncommon to see a study on, say, the benefits of raisins from the California Marketing Raisin Board—or the benefits of a particular sugary breakfast cereal from General Mills.
You can frequently guess which studies are industry-funded just based on the way they are designed. Usually they’ll consist of an interventional design following a small number of participants over short periods of time (weeks to a few months). The study will be focused on determining the specific health effects of one particular food (like almonds, yogurt, beef, pomegranate juice), and the conclusion section of the paper will, rightly or wrongly, spin the findings in the most positive light possible.
The rationale behind this formula is that companies and food marketing boards are fishing for findings that can become the basis of health-centered marketing claims. Or, In the case of meat, eggs, and dairy products, just a neutral health outcome is all it takes to cast doubt upon and contradict a larger body of research pointing to the negative effects of diets rich in animal-source foods.
In the end, it boils down to the bottom line. The food industry wants to craft research questions and protocols that will produce positive results that can in turn be wielded to boost more sales.
You likely won’t see food companies funding long-term, thoughtfully designed studies; the payoff is too delayed and too uncertain.
It’s not mysterious why companies act as they do. But you may be wondering why any self-respecting nutrition scientist or academic would agree to run food industry-sponsored research. The reasons are a bit complicated. For starters, federal funding for food and nutrition research has been declining since 2008. Federal appropriations for funding such research is contingent upon legislation, particularly the FARM bill, which is only reauthorized on a sporadic basis. Research is often the least of the priorities in the omnibus. This creates both a funding gap and an opportunity for the food and agriculture industries to impose their own research agendas. The effect is a blurring of the line between science and marketing.
Many researchers are therefore happy to take on industry-crafted research proposals and believe fervently in their ability to remain impartial, as long as they are given some assurance of independence from their corporate sponsor. But there’s still a problem: much of the bias in these cases is either built into the research questions themselves or simply operates at a subconscious level. There is an unspoken expectation that the results of an industry-funded study will either reflect well on that industry or challenge claims of negative health effects. Researchers know and act on this on a gut level, not necessarily a conscious one.
New peer-reviewed investigations into industry funding and bias in nutrition research are beginning to paint a clearer picture of the effects of conscious and unconscious bias. Take this example from the PLOS Medicine article in which researchers looked at funding and bias in studies on sugary beverages. A study was five times more likely to not find a link between sugary drinks and weight gain when there were financial conflicts of interest present.
In yet another PLOS Medicine article on funding sources in nutrition studies, researchers found that, among over 100 studies, zero industry-funded studies reported unfavorable conclusions. Compare that to 37% of studies with no industry funded reporting conclusions unfavorable to the food industry.
Nutrition science journals and professional organizations have also been called out for their uncritical acceptance of food industry involvement in science and policy. In a PLOS ONE article looking at nutrition journals’ practices, authors concluded that in studies with “food industry involvement, 55.6% reported findings favorable to relevant food industry interests, compared to 9.7% of articles without food industry involvement.” And industry-backed studies aren’t rare: over 13% of studies published in the top ten nutrition science journals were affiliated with the food industry.
The Journal of Nutrition may be the worst offender with roughly 30% of its published studies in 2018 having been funded by food manufacturers. A Scientific American reporter reached out to the journal’s editor-in-chief who commented that it’s “not appropriate” to “discriminate [...] based on funding source,” especially since government funding has dropped off in recent decades. If the buck doesn’t stop with peer-reviewed journals, where does it stop?
Apparently not with professional associations like the American Society for Nutrition, which publishes the Journal of Nutrition, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)—which are deeply entrenched in corporate money. In the case of AND, an investigation found that the organization “has invested funds in corporations such as Nestlé, PepsiCo and pharmaceutical companies, has discussed internal policies to fit industry needs and has had public positions favouring corporations.”
Despite mounting evidence that corporate money biases study outcomes, far too many academic institutions continue to turn blind eyes to the biasing effects of funding source. It seems many prominent researchers are willing to jeopardize their reputations and those of their institutions in taking corporate money. Reporting on this issue by the Associated Press even dares to name a few names of professors and schools. On the industry side, familiar suspects like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the American Egg Board, and The National Confectioners Association play starring roles.
In my own experience in academia, I have witnessed certain professors express blasé acceptance—even naive optimism—about their personal relationships with corporate sponsors. I distinctly remember one researcher arguing that the leadership at PepsiCo really does want to help solve child obesity (minus the part of the solution that requires the company to lose money). In another instance, I heard one of the most prominent figures from my alma mater say there’s no use trying to exclude corporations from the conversation on nutrition policy.
I find this tragic, but the federal government may be the biggest disappointment of all. As Nestle describes in Unsavory Truth, Departments of Agriculture actively abet industry-funded research through what’s known as checkoff programs. These are USDA programs meant to facilitate the marketing of and research on commodities like meat and dairy with the aim of boosting demand. Examples of checkoffs include the National Pork Board and the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. In association with other industry partners, these boards put out feelers for research proposals designed to fish for any health benefits of their products. These efforts have been especially important as of late since the World Health Organization formally recognized red and processed meats as carcinogens. Unsurprisingly, beef industry-sponsored research, enabled in part by the USDA, has found no link between meat intake and cancer.
Although this summary captures just a glimpse of the corporate influence in nutrition science and policy, I do not want to cast an entirely negative light on the state of nutrition research. The majority of the science is free from industry bias, and a high standard for rigor and integrity remains the norm. How, then, can we tell the good from the bad in nutrition science?
Some distinguishing characteristics of good nutrition science include a very large sample size (e.g., tens of thousands of participants), a focus on dietary patterns rather than single foods or products, and a longer study duration.
While good nutrition science doesn’t necessarily have to have all of these elements, they make for a useful reference. Always check for disclosures of conflicts of interest. Sometimes this requires verification through an internet search, since oftentimes relevant disclosures aren’t listed. And if a study is focused on a single food or nutrient, make sure the study is appropriately randomized, blinded, and has a comparison group that wasn’t picked just to make the food or nutrient look better than it really is.
All this to say, both skepticism and open-mindedness are needed in balance when evaluating nutrition studies. When in doubt, reach out to a nutrition scientist you trust.
Part II and Part III dig even deeper into the Industry Playbook and what it means for our collective health, so stay tuned. In the meantime, if you have information, thoughts, questions, or research to share, please contact me at email@example.com
Madeline is the Food System and Nutrition Policy Analyst at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes.
You can reach her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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