Industry Funded Nutrition Research in Our “Low-Trust” Environment

Public trust in many of our valued institutions seems to be in short supply these days.  Recent research, and many anecdotal examples, suggest that faith in government, business, the media and other institutions is at a low ebb. And while perspectives like these are generally cyclical, it is difficult to remember a time when faith in key social pillars has been so low, especially when our economy is relatively strong.

Having worked in the food industry for many years, funding industry-sponsored nutrition research among other things, I have seen this lack of trust building for some time.  In recent years, the mantra from several folks, primarily in the health professional and activist communities has been, “if industry funded it, don’t believe it.” And, for a variety of reasons, I think that’s a shame. At a time when government dollars for nutrition research are in relatively short supply and scientists are scrambling for funding to support their research on many key health and nutrition issues, attaching a stigma to an important source of dollars doesn’t help the situation at all. Further, any time a group or individual “throws shade” on an industry-sponsored study, they’re not only impugning the integrity of the organization that funded the work, they’re also implying that the research team that conducted the study may be lacking integrity as well. Most of the scientists I know, both in academia and industry, are earnest folks who are generally seeking answers to important questions. But, particularly in an era of fake news, “reality” TV, and an overly pessimistic public, it’s difficult to convince people to assess issues of this nature objectively.

Some relevant points to keep in mind, particularly as they pertain to industry-funded nutrition science: Nutrition research is difficult to do. Good experimental studies—studies with large sample sizes, strong control of various aspects of subjects’ lives, and feeding periods long enough to elicit real differences, are prohibitively expensive. Further, humans are not laboratory animals, so controlling factors including the foods they eat, how much physical exercise they perform, how much they sleep, how much stress they’re under, etc. is virtually impossible. That’s why nutrition science can be so fickle. A food or diet touted for its health benefits today may be shown to be of little benefit next month.  It’s the nature of the beast. 

None of this is to suggest that bad science doesn’t exist (and you hope that the peer review process weeds out weak studies), or that biases in various forms don’t creep into the scientific process. Research is performed by humans, after all, and humans generally have their preconceptions. When a scientist generates a hypothesis about how his/her study will turn out, they are demonstrating a form of bias. Ideally this bias is based on an educated opinion formed by previous experiments, and the researcher doesn’t allow it to cloud his/her observations. Similarly, an industry funder may have a preconception that a product will be superior to an alternative treatment, but they’ve got to be willing to allow the data to dictate conclusions. So, while we need to acknowledge that preconceptions exist in various forms, we should also acknowledge that they can be controlled through transparency and ethical conduct. Without these tenets, the scientific process (whether funded by industry or not) tends to break down.

At the end of the day there will always be skeptics -- people or groups who are apt to believe the worst, a form of bias in and of itself. But in times when research money is tight, and answers to important public health/nutrition issues are imperative, a bond between the research community and the food industry can be extremely synergistic and important.

Even in our current cynical environment, there are steps industry can take to help ensure that the research they fund is conducted in an objective, thoughtful manner that can garner public trust. These include:

Building (or re-building) public trust in any institution is not a short-term process. But if we’re ultimately to generate answers to many of the important public health/nutrition issues that vex us, cooperation and collaboration between industry and the academic community is key. Bringing transparency to the process is a good start.

Mitch Kanter, Ph.D., is the Chief Science Office at FoodMinds and head of our Nutrition Health and Wellness Science capability.