Nutrition research diverted by Big Food lobbies. New study

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A new scientific study shows how nutrition research is systematically skewed by Big Food. (1) Food industrial corporations generously fund researchers in order to counter public health policies and increase profits. (2) Sometimes even with direct control over scientific journals.

The efforts of food companies […] go straight to the heart of nutrition as a profession. In fact, co-opting experts, especially academics, is an explicit corporate strategy. A guide to such strategies explains that this particular tactic “is most effectively executed by identifying top experts … and hiring them as consultants or giving them research grants and the like.” This activity requires a minimum of finesse; it should not be too brazen‘. (3)

How Big Food pays for research

The illicit maneuvers of Big Food and Big Alcohol in the detour of scientific research have already been amply demonstrated, as noted (4,5). The authors of the Australian study add equally noteworthy data on ‘daylight’ maneuvers. That is, in cases of declared conflicts of interest. The study material collects all articles published in 2018 in the top 10 scientific journals of nutrition and dietetics. A body of 1,461 works.

Analysis of the material shows that 13.4 percent of scientific articles are subsidized in various ways by the food industry. And in most cases (55.6 percent) the research produces results favorable to Big Food. This is a striking figure, comparing with (formally) non-industry-funded articles, which lead to conclusions akin to the interests of industry insiders in only 9.7 percent of studies.

Control over journals

There are various ways for the food industry to condition research while formally complying with current regulations. Funding for studies and business trips, supply of products to be used in experimentation. That is – in an even simpler but not as well-known way – by creation and control of scientific journals.

Among the 10 journals evaluated, none is free from contamination. However, the incidence varies significantly in the sample. The highest percentage of industry-sponsored articles are published in The Journal of Nutrition (28.3%), the lowest in Pediatric Obesity (3.8%).

Conflicts of interest

The summary data becomes more understandable by looking at the conflict of interest statements declared by study authors and journal editors.

Four journals(Advances in Nutrition, The Journal of Nutrition, Obesity, Pediatric Obesity) declare conflicts of interest of their editorial board. In contrast, the editors of the other six journals(The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Advances in Nutrition, International Journal of Obesity, Nutrition Reviews, The Journal of Nutrition, Obesity) are fully involved in the food industry’s fold.

The most representative case of this phenomenon involves the Journal of Nutrition and Nutrition Reviews journals, which published the highest percentage of articles with industry involvement. Both are related to the food industry. Several Journal of Nutrition board members have declared conflicts of interest involving food companies.

American Society of Nutrition

The hub around which the intermingling of research and the food industry revolves is the American Society of Nutrition (ASN), which publishes the Journal of Nutrition, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Advances in Nutrition.


Nutrition Reviews
is instead published by theInternational Life Science Institute (ILSI), which is founded and funded exclusively by large food industry companies including Mars, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which are very generous in their giving of funds, as the table published here shows. Processed food producers, as is evident, are the protagonists in the majority (39.3 percent) of Big Food‘s subsidized items.

BIG FOOD AND RESEARCH

The pride of independent research

Protecting the integrity of nutrition research and its authority in public health policy requires some interventions, according to the study authors.

Solutions include identifying a limit to industry funding, curbing it in a system subject to government control and allocating it only to a project developed independently of industry. Instead, research institutes and universities should draw up strict guidelines on funding transparency, which are also capable of inhibiting any influence of the food industry on research programs. And set a limit on the number of sponsored articles.

‘Given the potential competing interests of the food industry on the one hand, and the scientific and population health interests on the other, it is important to explore mechanisms that can safeguard the integrity and public relevance of nutrition research and ensure that it is not undermined by the influence of the food industry.’

Marta Strinati

Notes

(1) Sacks G, Riesenberg D, Mialon M, Dean S, Cameron AJ (2020) The characteristics and extent of food industry involvement in peer-reviewed research articles from 10 leading nutrition-related journals in 2018. PLoS ONE 15(12): e0243144. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0243144 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0243144#references

(2) Marta Strinati, Dario Dongo. Nutrition and health, here’s how Big Food thwarts WHO. GIFT(Great Italian Food Trade) 3.9.20 https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/idee/nutrizione-e-salute-ecco-come-big-food-ostacola-l-oms

(3) NESTLE, MARION, and Michael Pollan. “CO-OPTING NUTRITION PROFESSIONALS.” In Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, 111-36. University of California Press, 2013. Accessed January 26, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt7zw29z.13

(4) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Conflicts of interest in scientific research. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 9/26/20, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/idee/conflitti-d-interesse-nella-ricerca-scientifica

(5) Marta Strinati. Big Alcohol and a century of science in its service. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 5.11.20, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/idee/big-alcohol-e-un-secolo-di-scienza-a-suo-servizio

Marta Strinati

Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".