The scientific method has advanced humanity by leaps and bounds over the last 500 years. At its base is a pure and objective quest to better understand the world we live in and how it influences us. Scientists pose a hypothesis, then design experiments to test its validity. Data is collected and analyzed, and conclusions are reached. The information is published only after being scrutinized by peers. This is true in any field, be it physics, chemistry, or nutrition.
Based on scientific evidence accumulated from painstaking research, health professionals and individuals alike are able to reach conclusions that help them make decisions. In the world of nutrition, scientific advances have led, for example, to the understanding of micro-nutrients such as vitamins. We know what happens when we don’t get enough vitamin C (scurvy). We know what foods are a good source of vitamin C (bell peppers, kiwi, oranges…).
There is an implicit trust that people place in the work of scientists. It is based on hundreds of years of credibility built up through the scientific method. When new research is published that recommends consuming more of nutrient A, or less of nutrient K, we tend to accept it as a universal truth.
What happens when the science is tainted? Can we still rely on conclusions from a non-objective source?
This is exactly what a recent review, published in PLOS, wanted to find out. The name of this fascinating article is: Financial Conflicts of Interest and Reporting Bias Regarding the Association between Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews
A systematic review is not a new experiment. It’s simply a lot of legwork sifting through many past experiments that have a common hypothesis, in order to identify a consensus, or lack thereof.
17 systematic reviews have been conducted in the past, to test the connection between caloric soft drinks (regular Coke, Pepsi, etc…) to weight gain. The current systematic review is a review of their conclusions. Ten of the previous reviews showed that sugary soft drink consumption may lead to weight gain, and 7 did not find such evidence.
The researchers divided these 17 reviews into two groups: those that were independent, and those that had some conflict of interest (usually funding by industry). The chart above illustrates that division. What you can clearly see is that industry funding led to a more favorable result to industry. The statistical significance is enormous, as is the practical significance to anyone who relies on “evidence based” advice from nutrition professionals.
What can be done?
In an ideal world, industry would never be allowed to directly fund research. But this would severely limit scientists, who have come to rely on donations and grants from corporations to push the boundaries of knowledge.
The authors of this study suggest that
clear guidelines and principles (for example, sponsors should sign contracts that state that they will not be involved in the interpretation of results) need to be established to avoid dangerous conflicts of interest.
Would that be enough? What do you think? How can science be funded if not through corporations?