The Trouble With Research (part 1)

In a previous edition of the Green Living Journal I wrote about ‘The Trouble with Natural’, in which I explained that ‘natural’ has no defined meaning from the USDA or the FDA. This term often used in food marketing gives the consumer no real information for decision making.

I will address sponsored food- based research, which is often paid for by food companies.

Lab worker making Green ChemistryIn this age of hyper marketing, food companies are looking for an ‘edge’ that gets the consumer to pay attention to their messaging. Smart consumers are starting to do more food and ingredient research, and becoming increasingly savvy to any inflated messages that accompany food marketing. Food companies need to differentiate their products, so when they can reference their research, this adds credibility to their claims.

The ‘trouble’ begins when the food producer asks an ‘independent’ group to research their request. This is more like proving their hypothesis correct, instead of conducting independent research. When the consumer thinks of research, it’s often associated with the notion of independence, where some college or research group decides to look into claims of nutritional benefits. Where there is independence, there could be true objectivity, which means the findings could be less biased.

Where there is sponsored research, there is the opportunity to find-in-favor of the sponsor, even if the findings are general in nature. It puts the researcher in a real bind – either find something good to report, or risk getting banned from the sponsored research business.

Lets look at a few real life examples:

Pear Bureau Northwest, pays for research and sends press releases about its expected positive results, such as “New Research Indicates Regular Fresh Pear Consumption May Improve Blood Pressure in Middle-Aged Men and Women with Metabolic Syndrome” . A statement from their press release states: “Pear Bureau Northwest continues to collaborate with researchers to support additional studies highlighting the relationship between pears and positive health outcomes”. The study is conducted by the Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Sciences and the Center for Advancing Exercise and Nutrition Research on Aging (CAENRA) at Florida State University by Dr. Bahram H. Arjmandi, Professor and Director of CAENRA and Dr. Sarah A. Johnson, previous Assistant Director of CAENRA.

In March 2015, The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said that glyphosate/Roundup is “probably carcinogenic to humans”. Also in 2012, the International Life Science Institute (ILSI) in Europe group took a $500,000 donation from Monsanto and a $528,500 donation from the industry group Croplife International, which represents Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta and others, according to documents obtained by the US right to know campaign. The news sparked condemnation from green MEPs and NGOs, intensified by the report’s release two days before an EU re-licensing vote on glyphosate, worth billions of dollars to industry.

According to Marion Nestle (independent researcher, nutritionist and food nutrition author):

Between March 2015 and March 2016, she identified 166 industry-funded nutrition research studies and posted and discussed them on her blog. Of these, 154 reported results favorable to the interest of the sponsor. Only 12 reported contrary results. The few studies systematically examining the influence of industry funding on nutrition research tend to confirm results obtained from other industries. For example, a systematic review comparing industry-funded and non-industry-funded trials of probiotics in infant formula reported no association of funding source with research quality. However, industry-funded studies, seemed more likely to report favorable conclusions unsupported by the data.

One independent organization that serves as a research review group is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI). For 40 years, they have reviewed research, lobbied congress, and brought lawsuits, with a mission of consumer advocacy. CSPI is governed by a volunteer board of directors and maintains a strict conflict of interest policy for its staff and board members.

Another resource is the Journal of Nutrition, published since 1928, which claims to be a scientific journal created solely for publication of nutrition research. Contents include peer-reviewed research reports on all aspects of experimental nutrition, critical reviews, commentaries, as well as symposium and workshop proceedings. The American Society for Nutrition requires authors, reviewers, and editors to disclose possible conflict of interest situations, (financial or personal interests), real or apparent, that may affect, or appear to affect, the impartiality and the integrity of the peer review process of its journals.

In conclusion, the consumer still needs to beware of new nutritional- based research claims. In the age of the internet, the number of nutritional benefit health claims has exploded, obscuring the truth behind the research – such as who funded the research, who peer reviewed, and who really benefits. Sometimes the real benefactor is not the consumer.

Ken Condliff is the founder and self-proclaimed CNO (Chief Nutty Officer) of Nut-tritious Foods located in Vancouver, WA 

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