The Problem with Science Funded by Industry

Lab Work

It seems like every week we read about new and groundbreaking research that proves food X is rich in nutrient Y, so we should consume it more often to reduce our risk of Z. While we have no doubt that many studies, especially those published in peer reviewed articles, have been carefully constructed, executed, and evaluated, it somehow seems that the results are more often than not in favor of the financial interest of the party who financed the study.

In an interesting article in PLOSRelationship between Funding Source and Conclusion among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles – the authors concluded very clearly that:

Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health.

In order to reach this conclusion, the authors scoured hundreds of published papers on the nutrition of soft drinks, juice, and milk.  Only papers that included information about funding were considered. In one type of study (nutrition interventions), there were no unfavorable conclusions when the study was funded by industry. But when independently funded, over one third of the studies had unfavorable conclusions. When funded by industry, a study was 7.6 times more likely to provide a favorable conclusion than when independently funded.

Why is this troublesome? Because today more thane ever, scientists are starved for funding. Universities and governments are far too small a source of funding for all the amazing research projects going on in labs across the globe. So food companies, as well as some commodity boards are glad to “help out.” That doesn’t necessarily mean their products are unhealthy. They might be super-duper. But it would mean so much more to us consumers to hear it from scientists who were not dependent on money from stakeholders in the results.

Our recommendation: the next time you hear about new research extolling the nutritional benefits of a product, the first thing you should look for is who funded the study…


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  • Michele Hays

    One other issue – not all industry-funded studies are published – in fact, studies that reach the opposite conclusion that the industry wants are frequently just not made available. This is particularly the case with medical research, but health research is the same. A campaign has begun to require publication of all clinical trials and to promote transparency in research

  • Andrea T

    I suspect that this will be one of your most widely shared article. Funding bias isn’t new, and we’ve known about it for years, but it’s good to see that a study was done about it.

  • McKel Hill | Nutrition Strippe

    Agreed!! Michele Hayes ^ you bring up an excellent point too. There was a TED video discussing this same issue, it was wonderful.

  • McKel | Nutrition Stripped

    Agreed!! Michele Hayes ^ you bring up an excellent point too. There was a TED video discussing this same issue, it was wonderful.

  • Sarah D

    Great article! Similar to what Michelle said, companies can run dozens of similar research products, only publishing the few with positive results. A good example is the fast food companies that market their products as part of a healthy lifestyle, when in reality their loaded down with chemicals.

    • Danielle Robertson

      By “chemicals” what do you mean? Are you talking about H20 or C6H12O6? What about isoleucine and phenylalanine? I think we need to be more conscious of how we use the word “chemical” since cultivating a fear of chemicals is in essence cultivating a fear of air itself. All in favor of educated, informed consumers and the decline over overgeneralized, oversimplified, dumbed-down nutritional advice?

    • Danielle Robertson
  • James Cooper

    But you also need to indicate that published studies can be in high level peer-reviewed journals like Nature and considerably lower tier journals. The rankings of these journals are well known to those in the field, but are often not understood by the popular reporters who pick up the reports. And, sadly, even though I’ve published there, PLOS is at best a second tier journal.

  • Mark Shields

    Gotta disagree. Who funded it, is important, but shouldn’t be the first thing to look for. In fact, that may even cloud one’s judgement and make oneself just as biased as blaming the funding… food for thought… rather look at the design, strengths, weaknesses and type of study.

  • James Cooper

    That 6-year old paper has come under a lot of criticism and is hardly the final word. Considering that they somehow decided to exclude half the papers they found, it is hardly conclusive, and quite insulting to the integrity of the scientists and the journals. Certainly the reviewers take into account the funding sources in deciding on the merits of the papers.

  • Danielle Robertson

    I say don’t just look at who funded the study, look at how the study was done. Was it double-blind, placebo controlled? Was there a reasonable blank or a placebo used or did the study determine that people who were given food had more energy than the people who got no food? Examples:
    Do we know for sure that independent funding matched the industry-funding? Is it beyond reason to suggest that the industry-funding studies were more controlled and were better conducted than the ones with industry funding? Based on the studies I have reviewed, it’s not always a clear-cut line between industry/independent funding. The validity of a study comes down to the methods of the study, not just who paid for it. The sad truth is scientific methods don’t make headlines so reading the news won’t tell you whether a study was done correctly or not. This is the plight of the scientist vs the media. The details matter.

    • Fooducate

      The details matter. One of the most important details is how the study was designed and what questions were asked.
      Another issue is the scrapped studies that are never published because the results were unfavorable to the invested party.

      • Danielle Robertson

        By “invested party” you mean the scientific journal the study is submitted to? Most grad students and professors want as many papers to their names as possible. Hopefully if the study design is not solid the paper won’t be accepted but some journals are more lax with what they accept.
        I think you’d be interested in this article about White Hat Bias,
        Bias DOES exist in the scientific community but there are different types, and it’s not directly tied to the funding. “Interestingly, while many papers point out what appear to be biases resulting from industry funding, we have identified here, perhaps for the first time, clear evidence that white-hat biases can also exist in opposition to industry interests…”

  • Maximillias

    Ok, Hemi, here’s the thing: yes, science being funded by any entity other than the ones interested in science for knowledge’s sake leaves room for squirreliness, but I got to this page after having read “However, after slightly deeper research… Stay Away… here is why:
    The ‘clinical studies’ supporting Juice Plus were all funded by…Juice Plus. If you don’t think that is a problem, read this.”
    I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but the link going to this page, where you give your opinion in detail, is a bit ridiculous. I literally in the last five minutes saw there’s a study going on at Wake Forest right now, by the National Cancer Institute. They’re measuring, essentially, the parts they know to look at to determine health, to see how they react to intaking fruit and vegetable concentrates.
    They report their results.
    Their peers review it.
    They make sure it can be done every time, and that it’s not a fluke.
    It gets published for the public.

    Where does the fault lie in this?
    If they did a study on the effects of fertilizer runoff making it’s way into the rain and said that’s why Monsanto is our best friend, okay. I’d understand your intensity. But “Juice Plus is scamming America”?? That’s taking a bit of license in the situation, I opine.

    I plan to read on, and I hope I don’t find more nonsense. To skip your necessity to do any research (not that it seems you do, lol), yes, I am a Juice Plus rep, and yes I believe in it. But I’ve looked as deeply as you can, and it’s golden all the way to the core, so I’m curious to see what else you have to say.
    Again, I intended no disrespect by anything I wrote, I just feel strongly. I didn’t even intend to be on your blog right now, but here we are.

  • Alicia

    whos funding it is irrelevant that’s why we have checks and balances such as internal review boards to review ethical conduct of the study, and regulatory oversight for any drug or natural health product not previously tested in a patient population. Unfortunately, without industry funding, research would never progress, there is simply not enough money in not for profit fundraising organizations, or individual donors.