Big Food and Big Soda’s sponsorship of academic and scientific research continues to be scrutinized, with many scientists and health experts rightfully expressing concerns about how the source of funding may overtly — or covertly — affect a study’s conclusions.
In this Forbes article, medical journalist Larry Husten examines the issue further:
- “What role should Coca-Cola and other food and beverage companies play in funding and communicating research about nutrition and obesity? The question is prompted by a recent article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The “state-of-the-art” paper reviews the relationship of obesity and cardiovascular disease and presents the case that a decline in physical activity is the primary cause of the obesity epidemic. The article downplays the role of calories and diet and does not include the words “sugar,” “soda,” or “beverage.” Three of the five authors of the paper report financial relationships with Coca Cola.”
- “It is important to acknowledge that there is an active scientific controversy about the relative importance of diet and exercise. But it also seems clear that the perspective on this controversy as presented in this paper is remarkably congruent with the interests of Coca Cola.”
For the piece, Husten reached out to cardiologist and obesity expert Carl Lavie, who was also lead author of that paper. Lavie states that Coca-Cola’s funding in no way affected his views or the science behind the paper, and that ultimately science relies on facts and speaks for itself.
Husten, however, argues that the issue of who funds research is important and needs to be addressed.
Some of his key points:
- “I also think it is fair– and studies have demonstrated– that gifts, even very small gifts, can exert strong unconscious effects. When combined with the flattery and attention of being designated a “key opinion leader” an unconscious alignment with a company can easily occur.”
- “In a recent paper in PLOS Medicine researchers conducted a systematic review of systematic reviews examining the association between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain and obesity. For the papers in which the authors reported no conflict of interest, 10 out of the 12 findings supported the association between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain or obesity. In stark contrast, 5 out of the 6 papers with industry support failed to find evidence for any such association. In other words, systematic reviews with industry support were 5 times more likely to find no significant association.”Our results,” wrote the authors, “confirm the hypothesis that authors of systematic reviews may draw their conclusions in ways consistent with their sponsors’ interests.”
- “Lavie defends Coke’s funding of research by saying that “pharma does this all the time.” This analogy represents a stretch of logic. Although pharma-funded research is often criticized, and there are many active battles over the precise role for pharma in research, it is widely agreed that pharmaceutical companies must play a vital and important role in medical research. No one would seriously argue that Coca-Cola has medicinal value.”
- “For-profit companies like Coke and Pepsi don’t spend enormous sums of money just to provide a public service. They expect a significant return on their investment, though this may be difficult to quantify. In any case, it is more than obvious why Coke would be interested in supporting scientists who maintain that sugar does not play an important role in the obesity epidemic.”
- “Large food and beverage companies have been insinuating their way into the healthcare discussion for many years. In the last few years I’ve noted a number of attempts, subtle and not-so-subtle, by industry to influence health policy. Earlier this year I reported that the newly elected president of the Institute of Medicine, cardiologist Victor Dzau, was a member of the Pepsico Board of Directors. In 2012 the president of the American College of Cardiology was chosen by the Coca-Cola Company to carry the Olympic Flame. (Steven Blair, another co-author of the JACC paper, was also chosen by Coke to be a torch-bearer.) Coke also pays a lot of money to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute to put a red dress logo on the Diet Coke label, while the American Heart Association has struck deals with, among others, Cheetos and Subway. I am sure that these represent just the tip of a very large iceberg.”