Research Review: Research, big food, and science

By Helen Kollias


Remember the movie The Fugitive with Harrison Ford? You know, the one with the one-armed man as the killer?

In the end we discover that the one-armed man was hired by a pharmaceutical company that was going to lose a lot of money because Harrison Ford had research that showed their new drug was harmful.

Yes,  The Fugitive is a sordid tale of scientific conflict of interest and integrity — and you thought it was just a murder mystery!

Scientific conflict of interest and your food


Ever wonder where your food research comes from?

Who does it? Who pays for it? Do they have an interest in finding one result over another?

Is there a one-armed man in the food industry?

Well, if you haven’t wondered up till now, you should start. You should especially wonder when reading or hearing about a study.

Big Food has big money. Big money goes to labs. Labs “discover” that spray cheese is a health food, that oat bran cures cancer, or that a new artificial sweetener lets us safely eat sundaes to our heart’s content.

Big Food’s big money also goes to media reporting. Study results are published and spun.

Consumers rush out to buy spray cheese, oat bran, and SucranotTM, all of which are conveniently supplied by Big Food. Scientists sleep happily on their giant pile of grant money.

Everyone wins. Right?

Well, except in 20 years when we discover that spray cheese is made from petroleum, that oat bran is a dud, and the sweetener — well, let’s just say “exploding pancreas” and leave it at that.

The practice of ghostwriting, where pharmaceuticals companies convince university professors to put their names on articles written by someone else, was brought further into the light after a Canadian professor admitted she wrote only a portion of a published paper, despite being listed as sole author.

McGill University psychology professor Barbara Sherwin issued an apology, saying she regretted not disclosing the fact that pharmaceutical giant, Wyeth, had paid a firm to work on an article published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The article ran in 2000 and reported that oestrogen could help treat memory loss in older patients.

The apology was sparked by a recent unveiling of court documents [that] showed that 26 articles published between 1998 and 2005, which had emphasized the benefits of taking hormones to protect against various conditions, had been partially or fully written by a writing firm paid by Wyeth.
The drugs company’s oestrogen medications, Premarin and Prempro, had annual sales of nearly US$2 billion in 2001.

Source: University World News

Scientific conflict of interest is so much of an issue, in fact, that groups have gotten together to address the problem. They want to know whether research funding biases the results.

Does “who pays?” make a difference? (I’m guessing yes.)

Research question

A group called the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) North America Working Group on Guiding Principles looked at financial conflict and scientific research. They then came up with a list of guidelines to help prevent bias.

Two special articles published in the American Journal of Nutrition and in Journal of Nutrition reflect the work by the ILSI to explore the role of conflicts of interest in the research process.

16 people made up this group. Some were from university or college research institutes, some were from government, and some were from big food companies (Coca-Cola Company, Kraft Foods Global, Inc., PepsiCo, Inc. and Mars, Inc.).

The articles I’m looking at this week review problems with research created by financial conflicts, and proposes a conflict of interest guidelines for both researchers and financial sponsors.

Rowe S, Alexander N, Clydesdale FM, Applebaum RS, Atkinson S, Black RM, Dwyer JT, Hentges E, Higley NA, Lefevre M, Lupton JR, Miller SA, Tancredi DL, Weaver CM, Woteki CE, Wedral E; International Life Sciences Institute North America Working Group on Guiding. Funding food science and nutrition research: financial conflicts and scientific integrity. J Nutr. 2009 Jun;139(6):1051-3.

Rowe S, Alexander N, Clydesdale FM, Applebaum RS, Atkinson S, Black RM, Dwyer JT, Hentges E, Higley NA, Lefevre M, Lupton JR, Miller SA, Tancredi DL, Weaver CM, Woteki CE, Wedral E. Funding food science and nutrition research: financial conflicts and scientific integrity. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;89(5):1285-91.

The goal of research

What is the purpose or goal of any research?

That’s easy: to figure out what’s going on — or more poetically, finding the “scientific truth.”

Problem is that just like everyone else, all researchers have biases. You may think that there is no room for interpretation in science, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

For example, you probably have a friend that is convinced that the root of every problem is too much government and you probably have a friend who thinks that the root of every problem is not enough government. (If not, you just need to watch conservative and liberally biased media.)

Anyway, with the same information they will generate wildly different interpretations.

So-and-so is a genius because they pre-emptively stopped X crisis or so-and-so is an idiot because they wasted money/time/lives on a fictitious crisis.

Same thing happens with scientists. They can get the same information from a study and come up with wildly different interpretations.

Studies can also be biased by the way the study is designed, and what researchers decide to study (or not study, which is sometimes more interesting in itself).

For example, researchers with a medical background might measure survival rates, reflexes, and various blood markers to see if protein consumption matters to post-surgery recovery.

A researcher with an exercise background will more likely look at changes in strength and muscle hypertrophy with the same study.

Both studies will look at protein consumption and surgical recovery, but their results and interpretation will be very different because of the study design.

Conflict of interest

The ILSI group defined conflict of interest as “a conflict between the private interest and the official responsibility of a person in a position of trust.”

When you have a big company sponsoring your work with the promise of more research dollars if you support their product’s claims, but your research indicates their product doesn’t work — or worse, is harmful — then you have a conflict of interest.

Guiding principles

In the conduct of public/private research relationships, all relevant parties shall:

  1. conduct or sponsor research that is factual, transparent, and designed objectively; according to accepted principles of scientific inquiry, the research design will generate an appropriately phrased hypothesis and the research will answer the appropriate questions, rather than favor a particular outcome;
  2. require control of both study design and research itself to remain with scientific investigators;
  3. not offer or accept remuneration geared to the outcome of a research project;
  4. prior to the commencement of studies, ensure that there is a written agreement that the investigative team has the freedom and obligation to attempt to publish the findings within some specified time frame;
  5. require, in publications and conference presentations, fully signed disclosure of all financial interests;
  6. not participate in undisclosed paid authorship arrangements in industry-sponsored publications or presentations;
  7. guarantee accessibility to all data and control of statistical analysisby investigators and appropriate auditors/reviewers; and
  8. require that academic researchers, when they work in contract research organizations or act as contract researchers, make clear statements of their affiliation; require that such researchers publish only under the auspices of the contract research organizations.

(Excerpt from Journal of Nutrition (139:1051))

The Coles notes version:

  1. Research has to be based on facts, easy to understand, designed according to standard procedures, and with an unbiased hypothesis.
  2. The scientist (rather than the one with the money and vested interest) controls the design and research.
  3. No bonuses for a certain right answer. No duh!
  4. Before any research starts, a contract between researcher and sponsor should be written and agreed on – it should give the researcher a chance to publish what they find within a given time.
  5. In any publications or presentations, the researcher has to say where they got their money from to do the research.
  6. Researchers can’t get paid in authorships.
  7. All data and stats have to be available to reviewers.
  8. If the researcher is working in contract research organizations they have to say so in publications, etc.


It’s important to critically read, listen and watch information we take in every day.

Who is telling us that this new product is fantastic? What do they have to gain? Does this make any sense based on what you already know?

In research articles there is a spot (right under the title, usually) to declare affiliation: in other words, all the groups the authors are associated with, which university or company, department, etc. Make sure you look at that so you know where they do their research.

On the last page of the article, right before the references, there is another spot to disclose where the researchers got their money.

Make sure you look at that, so you know who pays for their research and potentially how that could bias the study.

And if you see the Aerosolized Cheese Product Condiment Council of America… well… maybe throw that study out.

Eat, move, and live… better.

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