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Can We Trust Industry Funded Research?

Much of today’s food and nutrition research is paid for by commercial interests. Nutrition Diva explains how to detect bias—of all types.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
September 27, 2011
Episode #156

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Recently, we had a lively debate on my Facebook page over whether we should keep chocolate milk out of schools. There are data to suggest that kids drink more milk—and less soda – when chocolate milk is available. Several readers pointed out that some of the research was funded by the dairy industry—as if to say, “Therefore, the information is false. Case closed.”

Who funds a study is a obviously a very important piece of information—and that’s why researchers are required to disclose their funding sources and any other potential conflicts of interest at every step of the process. The fact that a study has been funded by a private interest suggests that we need to take a closer look at how it was conducted and reported. However, it not automatically invalidate the results.

Is Industry Funded Research Biased?

When a commercial interest invests in scientific research, they’re obviously hoping for results that will benefit their product or industry.  And if they get results that put their product in a positive light, you better believe they’re going to try to get maximum mileage out of it.  But, at least they’re attempting to provide verifiable data for their claims as opposed to just making stuff up!

And we benefit. Conducting research is quite expensive.  Quite frankly, if the food industry didn’t fund nutrition research, there’d be a whole lot less research. And although they don’t always work flawlessly, there are ethical safeguards in place.

In order to get the results published in a peer-reviewed journal, researchers have to follow certain rules and protocols about how studies are designed, how data are collected and analyzed, and how the results are reported.  The researchers also have to disclose their funding sources—which may cause the review boards to look even more closely at those study designs to be sure that they are scientifically sound.

However, there’s still room for bias.  Industry is more likely to sponsor research that they feel has a good chance of yielding positive results—and this may affect which questions get studied, and how.  Commercial interests are also very eager to publish and publicize results that benefit them—and not so eager to promote findings that don’t.

What is Publication Bias?

Indeed, industry-funded research is more likely to be flattering to the funder than not. However, this is true of all research to some extent and not just industry-funded research.  It’s called publication bias. If I discover that a particular thing (such as a drug, a diet, or a nutritional supplement) has an effect, my study is three times more likely to be accepted for publication in a scientific journal than a study that found no effect.

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