Recently I attended a Functional Foods Symposium and a guest speaker there had a talk regarding the food industry and nutrition research. His talk got me thinking about whether or not ‘industry funded research’ in the field of nutrition is a good thing or a bad thing.
What do I mean by industry funded nutrition research?
Well, things like the dairy industry funding studies to show if milk is good for this that or the other, bean growers funding studies that prove chickpeas can carry label claims (i.e. good source of protein), or flax growers funding studies that determine if flax consumption lowers blood pressure. It could also mean big companies like Coca Cola or Nestle funding different kinds of studies. The food industry may be supporting the research in its entirety, or they may be supporting with a portion of the funds required to complete the study (with the other portion more than likely coming from the government). The types of research funded by industry branches across lots of areas, but it could all possibly lead to bias.
Credibility is always an issue with industry funded research because the public (who may not know any better) may not know that some of the studies talked about in the media are funded by industry, and they may take them as peer-reviewed scientific research. Alternatively, the public might say “Industry shouldn’t fund research – we can’t trust it because they’re biased.” While this an opinion, I don’t think its a legitimate one in all cases.
Lets take chickpeas for an example. Beans are good for you, we know that. However…someone still needs to pay for the research to be done so that food companies/manufacturers can claim their chickpea product is ‘good source of protein,” and if the government can’t fund this research where will the money come from? In my opinion this is a good place for unbiased industry funded research – an outside group can conduct research on a product to see if it meets the label claim parameters.
Things get a bit fuzzy when large corporations begin to fund studies, particularly big food companies like beverage makers and Big Agriculture, like the Dairy or Beef Industry. While this research shouldn’t be immediately dismissed it should be looked at with a close eye (like all research!).
I think industry funded research has a time and a place, but I also think that it should be looked at with a critical eye and conflicts of interest and funding sources should be stated (which they usually are). I think this kind of critical eye should apply to all research, especially when the media gets involved because they usually twist the results in a certain way to make a news story.
Moral of the story: Don’t believe everything you hear, but don’t immediately discredit industry funded research!
How do you feel about industry funded research? Do you see it as critical in our food environment?