- About 13% of research articles published in the top 10 most-cited nutrition journals in 2018 were backed by the food industry. And of those articles with food industry involvement, about 56% reported findings that were favorable to industry interests, according to a paper published in Plos One. Only about 10% of articles without food industry involvement reported findings favorable to business interests.
- The Journal of Nutrition had the highest number of incidences of industry involvement at 28%, while Pediatric Obesity had the lowest at 3.8%.
- These findings are not the first time that industry involvement has been linked to favorable study results, but this most recent paper noted that "no study has comprehensively examined the extent and nature of food industry involvement in peer-reviewed research." Although researchers noted that more exploration is required, the finding raised questions about the transparency of industry involvement in scientific analysis and the health profiles of mass-produced foods.
Separation of science and business interests is one of the key pillars that keeps independent research independent. However, as noted by Gary Sacks, the Plos One study's lead author and a public health scientist at Deakin University in Australia, not only is food industry involvement in research fairly common, but it is also not always evident. The study observed that the provision of funding and the involvement of food company employees as part of research teams are two ways that the food industry participates in scientific research.
Moreover, not all segments of the food industry participate equally. Manufacturers of processed food were the most involved in published research, with 39% of the articles with industry involvement having links to these companies. Because most of the studies with industry links either concluded that a food product had health benefits or undermined evidence that a product was harmful, this study gives credence to concerns that there is a conflict of interest with the food industry's participation, particularly since processed food is generally agreed to be less healthy than more natural alternatives.
By establishing relationships with nutrition researchers, the food industry has the ability to increase its credibility, reduce criticism and encourage scientists to increasingly depend on its help, according to the study.
There are also potential long-term public health ramifications of journals publishing findings that support industry interests. In an interview with Scientific American, Teresa Davis, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Nutrition, said her journal considers the science presented rather than the funding source when accepting an article for publication. The Plos One paper noted that The Journal of Nutrition "is published by the American Society of Nutrition (ASN), which has formal partnerships with multiple food companies."
"I think it’s not appropriate for us to discriminate based on the institution the manuscript is submitted from, or the funding source, or the country," Davis said.
However, money talks and the relationship of food companies and public health is called into question with some regularity. From 2011 to 2015, Coca-Cola tried to influence the World Health Organization to push exercise instead of diet to solve obesity. Then last year, a study by the University of Cambridge found evidence that the soda giant had signed agreements with five public universities to give it the ability to review and "terminate without reason" or "quash" health studies it funded. In 2018, another study found scientific research sponsored by Coca-Cola and Mars "appeared to skew the evidence" toward industry-favored solutions.
In part, this tightening relationship between companies and scientists has to do with finances. As government research funding continues to tighten, researchers from around the world increasingly turn to industry to fill in the gaps, according to Scientific American. That has led researchers to look for ways to manage these potential conflicts of interest.
The court of public opinion may also serve as a potential deterrent from companies becoming too heavy-handed in their involvement. Consumers value transparency and are willing to switch brands to support honest and open corporations. So it may behoove companies going forward to disclose their participation in research. After all, not all research participation is objectionable. The Plos One paper pointed out that in some cases, corporations are involved in nutrition-related research simply to develop new knowledge, assist in research translation and contribute expertise and resources.