When you are buying a new kitchen, we can all agree that you will decided how it is going to look, and not the manufacturer. You are after all paying for it, so you make the decision.
When buying consumer goods this makes sense, but how about research related to food, and the effects it has on our bodies? Should the researcher decide what is being included? Or should the company funding the research have a say too? And how much influence should they be allowed? Can they request to limit the amount of subjects or duration of the research to create a more favourable result?
Your gut feeling might say that the researcher should decided, but more often than not, it is the (food) company funding the research that decides.
The food industry has borrowed from the tobacco industry when it comes to distorting science.(1)
In this article we will talk about the consequences that come with the influence (food) companies have over research. We will talk about the importance of understanding food related research, so you can make the right choices.
Research is Research?
First, let’s look at the power food companies have over the research they fund. How much power do these companies receive in return, for funding research. In an ideal world the answer to this question would be: none, nor should it affect the outcome of the research. But it is 2020, and we all know we are not living in an ideal world.
What are the motives for food companies to fund research? The simple answer is: marketing. A research paper that shines a positive light over a product gives the product more credibility, because the findings are supported by an academic authority. Research will generate headlines, which will translate in more sales.
Moving the blame
In 2015, The New York Times revealed that the Coca-Cola Company was funding the Global Energy Balance Network. (2) The reason behind this funding was to divert attention from the role sugar-sweetened drinks have in the obesity epidemic. This was being done by putting a very strong emphasis on the lack of exercise, distracting the public of the role sugar-sweetened drinks play. After this publication, GEBN closed down.
This publication showed how far food companies will go. A company selling sugar-sweetened drinks is not going to fund research that will most likely have a negative outcome. They can’t market a conclusion saying: sugar-sweetened drinks are unhealthy and consumers should stop drinking them. It would kill their business. But in this case what they could do is shifting the blame: go exercise more, because that’s the real problem…
In the past two decades more and more people became overweight and obese. The role sugar-sweetened drinks play in with this weight increase has been proven over and over again. (3)
Moving attention and blame away looks like harmless child play compared to the control companies have over research studies.
In 2019 researchers gained access to agreements Coca-Cola uses when it is funding research. These agreements were never disclosed before because they are usually confidential. The agreements showed that Coca-Cola did not have a say in the day-to-day operations of the research, however; the company could control other parts of the research.
The company has the power to review and comment on studies, make suggestions and ask for revisions before a publication. So if the researchers come across findings that are not suiting the company, they can “suggest” changes. As a last resort, the company has two nuclear options: terminate the research at any given time, or prevent publication. The company can prevent publication because it owns the rights to the publication. (4)
It is not about the consumers’ health, it is about selling more products.
Research that is being conducted under these conditions can hardly pass an unbiased. It leads to confusion and misinformation for the consumer practices lead to misinformation for the consumer. Below we have listed a couple of headlines from questionable research, funded by food companies:
- ‘Children and Adolescents Who Eat Candy Are Less Overweight or Obese’
Research funded by trade association representing the makers of Butterfingers, Hershey, and Skittles.
- ‘Hot oatmeal breakfast keeps you fuller for longer.’
Research funded by Quaker Oats.
And AVA’s favourite:
- “Study: Diet beverages better for losing weight than water”
Research funded by Coca-Cola and Pepsi lobbying group.
Oh, and let’s not forget that the Department of Food Science at Cornell University has a PepsiCo auditorium….
Take food research with a grain of salt (or two)
Above we have discussed how food companies are bending academic research to their benefit trough funding, but what does this say about food research, and how questionable is it? In 2013 a group of researchers compared studies regarding the connection between sugar-sweetened drinks and weight gain.Half of the studies were funded by food companies, independent parties funded the other half of the studies.
Research funded by the beverage industry are four to eight times more likely to show findings favourable to the industry than independently funded studies.
What they found might not come as a surprise. Over 80% of the studies funded by food companies showed no relationship between sugar-sweetened drinks and weight gain. They found the exact opposite with studies independently funded. Over 80% of those studies showed a strong relationship between sugar-sweetened drinks and weight gain.
These findings show how strong the grip and influence of food companies is with research being conducted on food and our health.
Which studies should you believe? Ultimately, that is for you, as a consumer, too decided. You cannot blindly trust claims that are being made about products you buy in the supermarket, because more often than not, those don’t contain the whole truth.
AVA’s science based approach
AVA feels strongly about providing you with the right information, so when we publish articles, or talk about our philosophies when it comes to food, training and mindfulness, we do our best to follow these rules:
- To the best of our abilities, we make sure any research we use is only independently funded;
- AVA only includes long-term studies, tracking test subjects over a period of time that is longer than just one month;
- We only included research that has been conducted on humans.
These rules have been selected by us because independently funded research is often free from hidden agenda’s. The studies sponsored by a food company come with these, not so, hidden agenda’s: selling more of their product. We only include long-term studies because our bodies don’t change overnight. Change, for better or worse, happens over time: months and years, and not days or weeks. And we only focus on human studies because results from animal studies are often hard to replicate in the human body.
Let us know in the comments below if you ever came across questionable research or claims. We might dive into it in on of our upcoming articles or one Instagram and Facebook. Give us a follow!