Can We Trust Industry Funded Food Research?

This was the subject matter at one of yesterday’s most important and interesting sessions at ADA’s Nutrition Conference in Denver.

Unfortunately, it was one of the least popular sessions, with only 50 or so participants. The American Dietetic Association is a science / evidence based organization. The dietary recommendations consumers receive from its members are the result of scientific research. It is imperative that the information be 100% accurate, unbiased, and scientifically sound. The potential for conflict of interest when companies wanting to sell more products fund research is obviously high and creates a tension that must be resolved.

From a consumer perspective, there is a natural suspicion of research that is funded by companies. Companies usually fund research in areas close to products they sell. It turns out that industry funded studies are 4-8 times more likely to have a favorable outcome to the funder than non-funded studies. This could be explained by the fact that companies have conducted their own preliminary research to begin with, but perhaps the scientists felt in some place obliged to produce certain results.

Supporters of industry funded research acknowledge that there is a potential for bias, but potential does not mean bias actually exists. In fact, some will say that unfunded studies may have just as much potential for bias, based on the researchers’ personal beliefs, aspirations, and lifelong attempts to prove a certain hypothesis.

So should all ties between industry and academia be severed?

In an ideal world, perhaps yes. But reality is more complex. Universities and the government do not have enough money to fund all food related research. So as researchers want to reach new frontiers, they must accept additional sources of money. Conversely, maybe in utopia industry would fund studies freely, but the ethics of all sides would be so high that it wouldn’t matter.

There must be a middle ground. The speaker presented a set of guidelines for future research. Here are some of their suggestions:

1. Full disclosure of each researcher’s past and current affiliations with industry.
2. Full disclosure of conflicts of interest among researchers and among peer reviewers of the research results. (In academia, before a research paper is published, it goes through a long review process by “peers” from other universities).
3. Firewalls between the research functions and the money functions.
4. Publication of ALL research efforts, not just favorable ones. As one researcher explained after the session, sometimes companies will pay MORE to play down and even stop publication of unfavorable results.

Will these guidelines be adopted? Will they suffice? As always, there won’t be a clear-cut answer. We support any and all activities than provide increased transparency.

And we reserve the right to remain highly skeptical of the manifestation of research as “Health Claims” on food packages in the supermarket.

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