OP-Ed: The Food Industry Should Not Be Able to Buy Studies

Source: food safety helpline

How does a failing company keep shareholders from fleeing? How do low-ranked law schools convince new students to fork over expensive tuition for a devalued degree? They juke the stats. You don’t need to fabricate numbers or blatantly lie. Just use misdirection to paint a rosier picture. Divert attention away from the giant leak in the ceiling and focus on the shiny new kitchen appliances. Present numbers or features that sound good and keep the bad news out of view.

They’re not the only ones. How does the food industry keep getting people to buy food that is killing them? You guessed it. They’ve mastered the art of juking the stats.

Earlier this week a study released in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that the sugar industry paid large sums of money to Harvard researchers in the 1960’s to influence medical opinion on the link between sugar and heart disease. Bought researchers downplayed the role sugar played in America’s growing heart disease epidemic and turned attention instead to dietary fats.

These studies were originally published in highly respected journals like the New England Journal of Medicine. This misdirect led to a slew of “low-fat” or “non-fat” foods in grocery aisles that were packed full of sugar.

"Light" and "Low Fat" are often codewords for "High Sugar"
“Light” and “Low Fat” are often codewords for “High Sugar”

The consequence of these practices is enormous. “We have to ask ourselves how many lives and dollars could have been saved, and how different today’s health picture would be, if the industry were not manipulating science in this way,” Jim Krieger, executive director of Health Food America

Misery loves company

Big Sugar is not alone. The rest of the food industry is using the same scheme to make their products seem healthy, or at least less harmful. And some scientists and researchers at the highest level are complicit in making this happen. Trade groups give them huge sums and endowments to conduct research.

This practice isn’t some bygone scheme of the past century. Marion Nestle, PhD explains that pay-for-play continues today. “Is it really true that food companies deliberately set out to manipulate research in their favor?” She asks in a companion piece to the JAMA findings. “Yes, it is, and the practice continues.”

Nestle continues: “Food company sponsorship, whether or not intentionally manipulative, undermines public trust in nutrition science, contributes to public confusion about what to eat, and compromises Dietary Guidelines in ways that are not in the best interest of public health.”

It is unlikely that scientists will reject these research requests out of some higher moral calling. We know that the beverage industry and candy industries are continuing to juke the stats to keep their products in the hands of our children. This is particularly nefarious for public health.

Untangling the food research knot

Companies now have to disclose their research funding, but it hasn’t slowed down the perpetuation of these studies.

Organizations like the American Beverage Association (funded by Coca-Cola) compromise public health with their misleading research. In 2015 the New York Times uncovered evidence that Coca-Cola funded research deliberately downplayed soda’s role in childhood obesity. Coke’s response? “We partner with some of the foremost experts in the fields of nutrition and physical activity.” That sounds an awful lot like the tobacco industry’s official statement in the 1990’s when it was funding research on the harmful effects of smoking.

sugar industry studies
Coca-Cola’s American Beverage Association wants you to believe that sugary drinks are not to blame in skyrocketing childhood obesity rates

At HFR, it is our utmost goal to make the world a healthier place and reduce the spread of childhood obesity. Childhood obesity increases cardiovascular disease, liver problems, and causes a host of other issues. So when cable news picks up a study with a “feel good” headline (Does candy make you skinnier? Find out after the break!) be aware that it probably is too good to be true.

Scientific research on nutrition should be done with only the public’s best interest in mind. It should not be another PR function for multibillion-dollar industries. But things aren’t likely to change anytime soon, so it is up to the individual to stay educated on health studies.

So what can you do to stay informed?

The most important thing you can do is to be very skeptical of any research study headlines. Read the study itself and see where the funding came from. How? Organizations like Health News Review assess the validity of studies in the media, and give lots of useful tips on how to objectively analyze an article.

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