I’m going to let you in on a Big Food secret: industry funded research.
I’ve been working with a team that includes food scientists and other specialists who’ve been helping me with product development. The product we’ve been creating will eventually be available out our restaurants and online.
One possibility I’ve discussed with the team is sponsoring a group of researchers to conduct a randomized, double-blind placebo study on the product’s effectiveness. Such research has long ranked as the “Gold Standard” among studies. But it’s an expensive undertaking!
How Industry Funded Research Works
We’re exploring a grant that would fund up to half a million dollars for research and development. If we receive the funds, we may be able to put them towards a study.
If we go this route, I’ll sponsor a reputable and objective research group with a strong food-science and nutrition-research pedigree. I’d expect them to design an intriguing study from which our PR firm will write a catchy news release.
I’d only consider experienced researchers with a history of published, favorable, and impressive papers on healthy foods. I wouldn’t want them to be biased, but they’ll need a proven record.
I’d also want an established, peer-reviewed nutrition journal to publish the study, which will identify my organization as having a financial conflict of interest. If that leads to accusations of bias against the study’s authors, it’s just one potential downside to industry funded research.
Ultimately, I have enough faith in my plant-based product that I believe money spent on a well-formulated study could help us meet our sales goals.
The industry funded research strategy is straightforward:
1. The potential product’s producer wants to secure a significant sales agreement with customer A.
2. Customer A is skeptical and wants evidence of the product’s benefits.
3. The producer helps fund research likely to show a positive outcome for their product.
4. Impressed with the research, Customer A decides to move forward with the purchase.
Why am I raising the curtain on this behind-the-scenes business strategy?
Because I’ve spent the week reviewing research on eggs – and the egg industry has mastered funding favorable research. They’ve been doing it so long they probably know every trick in the book for directing funds to achieve positive study outcomes.
I’m not calling them unscrupulous in this regard. But given how long they’ve been influencing researchers, they’ve gotten efficient at producing positive results.
Is Industry Funded Research a Conspiracy?
Not at all. Industry funded studies are commonplace. Savvy business professionals do their due diligence and hire friendly researchers to design intelligent studies.
In 1984, a Time Magazine cover depicted a plate with a frowning bacon-and eggs face and the caption CHOLESTEROL: And the Bad News… but the egg industry had had enough of playing defense. They responded by assembling a team of scientists and fought back with self-funded research.
One team member was cholesterol research scientist Donald J. McNamara Ph.D. In 2015, Nutrients published McNamara’s paper, The Fifty Year Rehabilitation of the Egg.
In it, he explained that one of the egg industry’s challenges was “the accusation that the findings of any study from ‘industry funded research’ are often a quick nullification of the credibility of the results and the investigators involved.”
But the media and health-organization onslaught of information connecting eggs, cholesterol, and heart disease couldn’t go unanswered. In the egg industry’s eyes, this attack “necessitated that the animal food commodity groups respond, and overall their responses were based on the use of science.”
He continues, “Over the years, the egg industry funded a variety of animal and clinical studies investigating the effects of egg intake.” What were their results?
Study after study showed:
- “egg intake was not associated with CVD [cardiovascular disease} incidence”
- “little effect on CVD risk.”
- “did not significantly affect CVD risk profiles”
- “dietary cholesterol was non-significant as an independent factor in CVD incidence.”
The Reward for Work Well Done? Permission to Keep Doing It!
In 1995, the American Egg Board rewarded Dr. McNamara’s work by appointing him Executive Director of their science and nutrition education arm, the Egg Nutrition Center (ENC).
One ENC goal was to publish enough positive egg studies that global health organizations would change their cholesterol-intake recommendations.
Decades later, in 2015, they finally succeeded in one of their primary objectives. The USDA’s US Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020 removed the 300mg a day language that had been the recommended cholesterol limit since 1968.
Donald celebrated his career-defining success, “A recommendation known worldwide that lasted for 47 years has simply been discarded, and we can all go back to including eggs in our diets.”
And how did he feel about giving over 30 years of his life to achieving this win?
“This nutritional saga shows that dietary recommendations need to be based more on science than belief, and that industry-funded research can be a valid approach to address specific issues – and when applying proper scientific methods, can be of benefit to both the industry and the public.”
The reality is that positive industry-funded research is far from rare. Today, I stumbled onto Professor Marion Nestle’s website Food Politics.
In a 2015 blog post, she wrote about tracking the amount of negative industry-funded studies. It begins:
“Don’t miss the article on the front page of today’s New York Times about Coca-Cola’s paying scientists who argue that obesity is more about exercise than diet…”
Between March and August of that year, only 1 of the 42 studies Marion reviewed was unfavorable to the researched product. That’s fewer than 2.5 percent.
As a businessman, industry-funded research makes sense to me. However, as an amateur researcher, I have to ask how seriously so much spending has muddied the water.
Has industry funded research led to clearer scientific facts? Or to science fiction?
Maybe I don’t want to play this reckless game.