Last week, The Conversation published an excellent essay by University of Sydney professor Lisa Bero on food industry bias in scientific research. Professor Bero was one of the authors of a recent review which concluded that studies on sugar-sweetened beverages by the beverage industry downplayed health risks.
- “In September, a JAMA Internal Medicine study revealed that in the 1960s, the sugar industry paid scientists at Harvard University to minimize the link between sugar and heart disease.”
- “The reason it took so long to expose the sugar industry’s tactics is bias can be well hidden. To avoid the potentially huge ramifications, we need much better systems in place when it comes to nutrition research.”
- “An important part of any systematic review is to evaluate the biases in the studies included. Public health dietary guidelines and policies are influenced by political, economic and social factors. That’s inescapable. But if the evidence on which these decisions are based is flawed, the entire foundation for systematic reviews, guidelines and policy, crumbles.”
- “Bias in research is the systematic error or deviation from true results or inferences of a study. Pharmaceutical, tobacco or chemical industry funding of research biases human studies towards outcomes favorable to the sponsor.”
- “Because bias can be introduced in several ways, such as in the research agenda itself, the way research questions are asked, how the studies are conducted behind the scenes, and the publication of the studies. Industry influences on these other sources of bias in research often remains hidden for decades.”
- “Food industry sponsorship is associated with researchers interpreting their findings to favor the sponsor’s products. Conclusions don’t always agree with results but can be spun to make readers’ interpretations more favorable.”
- “For example, a study might find that a particular diet leads to weight loss and an increase in heart disease but the harmful effects of heart disease are omitted from the conclusion. Only the weight loss is mentioned. This spin on conclusions is a tactic in other industries and can influence how research is interpreted.”
- “A research agenda focused on single ingredients (such as sugar) or foods (such as nuts) rather than their interactions or dietary patterns may favour food-industry interests. This is because it may provide a platform to market a certain type of food or processed foods containing or lacking specific ingredients, such as sugar-free drinks.”
- “Research institutions should implement strategies that reduce the risk of bias when industry sponsors research. They could do this by a risk-benefit assessment for accepting industry sponsorship of research. This would evaluate the sponsor’s control of the design, conduct and publication of the research, as well as any risk to the institution’s reputation.”
Remain vigilant and informed!