The Integrity of Nutrition Research
W. Jean Dodds, DVM
Hemopet, 11561 Salinaz Avenue, Garden Grove, CA 92843; www.hemopet.org
Although the integrity of industrial funding for pharmaceutical research and its implications for the public health have been thoroughly studied and questioned, parallel information about the food industry and nutrition research has not been adequately addressed (1). While bias in pharmaceutical research has the potential to adversely affect the millions of people and animals that take medications, bias in nutrition research could adversely affect every living being, including livestock and companion animals.
Findings of nutrition research can influence governmental and professional dietary guidelines, the design of public health interventions, and regulation of food product health claims. In addition, these findings may receive widespread publicity in the popular media, which in turn directly affects consumer behavior for both people, livestock management, and their companion animals.
Financial relationships and industrial sponsorship of research in both the pharmaceutical and nutrition fields are a common occurrence today. The cogent question remains, however, to what extent financial sponsorship of drug- and nutrition-related scientific articles affects their published conclusions (2). Scientific articles funded exclusively by the food industry or its affiliates were found to have more favorable conclusions than articles published without industry-associated sponsorship (1, 2), which is termed the “sponsorship bias”.
Summary of Research Findings (1)
Medline searches of worldwide literature were used to identify three article types (interventional studies, observational studies, and scientific reviews) about soft drinks, juice, and milk published between January, 1999 and December, 2003. Financial sponsorship and article conclusions were classified by independent groups of co-investigators. The relationship between sponsorship and conclusions was explored by exact tests and regression analyses, controlling for co-variates. Two hundred and six articles were included in the study, of which 111 (54%) declared financial sponsorship. Of these, 22% had all industry funding, 47% had no industry funding, and 32% had mixed funding.
Funding source was strongly related to conclusions when considering all article types. Articles sponsored exclusively by food or drinks companies were four to eight times more likely to have conclusions favorable to the financial interests of the sponsoring company than articles which were not sponsored by food or drinks companies.
For interventional studies, the proportion with unfavorable conclusions was 0% for all industry funding versus 37% for no industry funding. The odds ratio of a favorable versus unfavorable conclusion was 7.61 (95% confidence interval 1.27 to 45.73), comparing articles with all industry funding to those with no industry funding (1).
The authors concluded that industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles can bias conclusions in favor of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for the public health. Why or how this bias comes about is unclear, but many different mechanisms might account for it (1,2). One solution to help reduce bias would be to increase independent funding of nutrition research. For veterinary medicine, this is an important and laudable goal.
1. Lesser LI, Ebbeling CB, Goozner M et al. Relationship between funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles. PLoS medicine 2007; 4(1):41-46.
2. Nestle M. Food company sponsorship of nutrition research and professional activities: A conflict of interest? Public Health Nutr 2001; 4: 1015–1022.