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Spotting the Food Industry’s Influence on Nutrition Research

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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 dietitians.org) 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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Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD

"Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDN, FAAP, is a board-certified pediatrician and obesity medicine physician, registered dietitian and health coach. She practices general pediatrics with a focus on healthy family routines, nutrition, physical activity and behavior change in North County, San Diego. She also serves as the senior advisor for healthcare solutions at the American Council on Exercise. Natalie is the author of five books and is committed to helping every child and family thrive. She is a strong advocate for systems and communities that support prevention and wellness across the lifespan, beginning at 9 months of age."

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