Be wary of junk science
Chocolate has heart-healthy benefits and wine has anti-aging properties. Or perhaps not.
Processed foods and sugary soda pop cause obesity. Wait, no, it doesn’t matter what you eat and drink, just how much you exercise.
With the likes of Mars, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and other food and beverage giants funding research and disseminating health information, it’s no wonder it’s so darn hard to figure out the difference between what’s actually good for us and what someone is trying to sell us.
Corporate meddling in nutritional “science” goes back decades. Food and beverage corporations have turned it into a battleground by creating questionable institutes and organizations and funding research to further their bottom line, sow doubt about the unhealthiness of their products and stave off government regulations designed to tackle rising obesity rates.
After Coca-Cola suffered a particularly embarrassing exposure a few years ago about the extreme lengths it will go — funding the Global Energy Balance Network to wrongly shift attention to exercise, rather than diet, as the best way to lose weight — the company claimed it had reformed.
Researchers at Cambridge University and other institutions decided to look into Coke’s claims.
Their paper, published in the Journal of Public Health this past week, revealed contracts where Coke retained the right to quash a study if it didn’t like the results.
That’s hardly being a leader in funding transparent, independent research.
Now the paper’s authors admit they had a small sample of contracts to work with, that some academics pushed back and got better terms, and Coke has changed some of its standard rules, so this is not the final word on the subject. But it is another glimpse into a troubling world.
Anytime research is controlled by commercial interests it becomes marketing as much as science.
In all this, Big Soda is following in the footsteps of Big Tobacco, which funded research dismissing the link between cigarettes and cancer, and Big Oil with research sowing doubt about the link between human behaviour and climate change.
By funding research, they decide what questions get asked and which ones don’t, and potentially what findings are made public.
This grows ever more problematic as corporate money plays an increasing role in research, and especially in cases where academic advancement is partially tied to attracting research dollars.
So even when companies don’t hold the right to keep studies they don’t like under wraps, there’s a real danger of self-censorship by researchers on topics and study design.
A few years ago, Marion Nestle, author of showed that in dramatic fashion. She collected a year’s worth of industry-funded studies and with a pile of 168, just 12 of them did not produce results favourable to whatever corporate interest paid the bill.
One of them might well have been the Nestlé-funded study in Malaysia that — lo and behold — concluded that kids who had a sugary malted beverage for breakfast were more active and spent less time in front of screens.
We don’t even have to look that far afield to find conflicts of interest in food science.
The beverage industry here set up the Canada Juice Council as a front in its, thankfully, unsuccessful attempt to keep juice as a recommended substitute for a portion of fruit in the recent update to the national food guide.
Corporate money in research is here to stay, so at a minimum, as the authors of this new study suggest, details of the funding agreement should be published alongside the research allowing for a more complete appraisal of any study.
And the rest of us should be wary of miracle food breakthroughs and easy answers to complex problems.
Eating chocolate won’t make you healthy, drinking wine won’t keep you from aging, and drinking sugary beverages like Coke is not good for you.