Spotting the Food Industry’s Influence on Nutrition Research

by Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP on Mar 15, 2018

Food for Thought

The food industry has an inherent conflict of interest when it funds nutrition research. After all, food manufacturers’ livelihoods rise and fall on how we decide to consume calories. The industry’s deep pockets translate into influence over dietary experts, scientific studies and nutrition policymakers.

That power became clear in 2016, when the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that the sugar industry funded early research encouraging Harvard scientists to downplay the health risks of sugar and instead blame fat. Fifty years ago, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published these findings without disclosing the sugar industry funding (such disclosures were not common back then).

In an editorial last year, JAMA pointed out that food and agricultural industries spent $12.4 billion on nutrition studies in 2013, eclipsing the $1.5 billion in funding from all agencies of the federal government 4 years earlier. Industry-funded findings are significantly more likely to benefit the industry than research funded by sources like the National Institutes of Health, especially for studies of sugary drinks and artificial sweeteners, JAMA wrote.

The food industry targets key thought leaders and nutrition experts, offering freebies and stipends to pen columns, endorse products or present at meetings. While experts are bound by ethical requirements to disclose funding and do attempt to remain unbiased, studies show that industry funding influences their behavior. Moreover, corporate food giants typically employ registered dietitians on their marketing teams, while the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a professional organization of registered dietitian nutritionists, has accepted large amounts of food industry funding.

In 2013, RDNs opposed to taking industry money founded Dietitians for Professional Integrity (integrity to counter corporate influence.

Health and fitness professionals who want to share credible, unbiased nutrition facts with clients need to ask a few critical questions when interpreting dietary information:

  • Are there conflicts of interest? Who is funding the person or the research? Does the funder have a vested interest in the outcome?
  • How credible is the source? Who is providing the nutrition information? Does independent science support the findings? What makes this person or organization credible? Sources such as the Nutrition Action Healthletter, published by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, base recommendations on science and refuse corporate funding.
  • Are red flags flying? Studies or promotions that boast of breakthroughs, cures and miracles are likely to be more hype than substance.
  • Do the findings make sense? Do the claims stand up against common sense?

It’s crucial to ask such questions before changing your practice in response to the latest and greatest nutrition pronouncements.

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About the Author

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP IDEA Author/Presenter

Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD is a board-certified pediatrician, registered dietitian, and ACE Health Coach. She is committed to providing evidence-based nutrition and fitness information to health professionals and consumers alike in a way that is logical, practical and directly applicable to readers’ lives. She has authored over 100 publications and book chapters, all which are based on the latest scientific evidence and presented in a manner that is easy-to-understand and apply. She is Director of Healthcare Solutions for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) having written the nutrition chapters for each of ACE’s textbooks, the ACE Fitness Nutrition Manual and Specialty Certification, and recorded several Webinars and online courses. Furthermore, as a spokesperson for ACE, the largest fitness certifying and advocacy organization in the country, she informs broadcast and print media outlets throughout the U.S. on pertinent nutrition and fitness issues. She is author '"Eat Your Vegetables!" and other mistakes parents make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters'. She presented a similar topic at IDEA World 2009; the video is available for purchase through IDEA. Certifications: ACE, ACSM and NSCA