As Julius Caesar said with the knife buried in him: “Et tu, Brute?” I feel a little the same way after this paper from PLoS, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.
It’s long been known and reported on that there is major bias in studies funded with drug company money. Now it appears that there is the same kind of bias when published nutritional studies are funded by food companies. There may be even more bias than there appears to be due to the fact that many negative studies are not published. If a company pays to underwrite a study on one of its products, and that study turns out to not support the claims that company makes for its product, typically the study isn’t submitted for publication. When you see a study that offers evidence that the companies products promote better health, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the study is false or wasn’t well done. But what you don’t know is whether there are a half dozen more studies showing the product negatively that never saw the light of day.
The Editor’s Summary of the PLoS study:
Much of the money available for doing medical research comes from companies, as opposed to government agencies or charities. There is some evidence that when a research study is sponsored by an organization that has a financial interest in the outcome, the study is more likely to produce results that favor the funder (this is called “sponsorship bias”). This phenomenon is worrying, because if our knowledge about effectiveness and safety of medicines is based on biased findings, patients could suffer. However, it is not clear whether sponsorship bias extends beyond research into drugs, but also affects other types of research that is in the public interest. For example, research into the health benefits, or otherwise, of different types of food and drink may affect government guidelines, regulations, and the behavior patterns of members of the public. Were sponsorship bias also to exist in this area of research, the health of the wider public could be affected.
Why Was This Study Done?
There is not a great deal of evidence about whether sponsorship bias affects nutritional research (scientific studies that look at the relationship between food and/or drink, and health or disease states). Therefore, the group of researchers here set out to collect information from published nutritional research papers, to see if the type of sponsorship for the research studies was in any way linked with whether the main conclusions were favorable or unfavorable to the sponsor.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The research study reported here used the scientific literature as a source of data. The researchers chose to examine one particular area of nutrition (nonalcoholic drinks including soft drinks, juices, and milk), so that their investigation would not be affected too much by variability between the different types of nutritional research. Using literature searches, the researchers identified all original research and scientific review articles published between January 1999 and December 2003 that examined soft drinks, juices, and milk; described research carried out in humans; and at the same time drew conclusions relevant to health or disease. Then, information from each published article was categorized: the conclusions were coded as either favorable, unfavorable, or neutral in relation to the health effects of the products being studied, and the article’s funding was coded as either all industry (ie, food/drinks companies), no industry, or mixed. 206 published articles were analyzed and only 54% declared funding. The researchers found that, overall, there was a strong association between the type of funding available for these articles and the conclusions that were drawn. Articles sponsored exclusively by food/drinks companies were four to eight times more likely to have conclusions favorable to the financial interests of the sponsoring company than articles which were not sponsored by food or drinks companies.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that a high potential for bias exists in research into the health benefits or harms of nonalcoholic drinks. It is not clear from this research study why or how this bias comes about, but there are many different mechanisms that might cause it. The researchers suggest that certain initiatives might help to reduce bias, for example, increasing independent funding of nutrition research.