Scientists who accept industry funding are commonly perceived as “biased” and much scrutiny has been given to research funded by food companies. This issue hits close to my heart as a researcher that is passionate about advancing our knowledge of both food science and human nutrition. I have transparently accepted industry funding from dozens of companies to conduct high-caliber and quality research that would have otherwise never been published in the scientific literature or put into the public domain. As a young professor, there isn’t a day that goes by that I can picture a world without industry funded research amid dwindling government grants.
How does industry funding make a difference?
A longtime mentor of mine, Dr. Phil Nelson won the World Food Prize in 2007 for inventing a process called “aseptic processing.” This technique allows us to put a sterile product into a sterile container. That makes sense from a food safety standpoint, right? Recall those aseptically processed milk pouches that do not require refrigeration, distributed by relief groups such as Feed the Children in third-world countries? Aseptic processing was almost solely developed through funding from the dairy industry.
Do you think getting enough dietary fiber is good for you? Studies consistently show that increasing dietary fiber helps lower your bad cholesterol (i.e., LDL). You can thank the folks at General Mills and Quaker Oats for providing the funding for that research, and changing almost all their product lines from refined grains to whole grains because of that research. Think of how many people eat cereal on a regular basis. Now that’s a public health impact!
The real question isn’t about industry funding. It’s about making sure that research is rigorous and not biased towards an outcome. I have a passion for and understand how to conduct human clinical trials, but company scientists often have a far greater knowledge of the chemistry and biology behind their product. So why wouldn’t I use their knowledge and expertise to help design the best clinical trial? The more mind power, the better the study… if it’s done transparently and without influencing the outcome.
I’ve read a lot of media headlines about the influence the sugar industry has had on research in that area. I obviously do not support over-consumption of added sugars and I understand that there have been “bad apple researchers” in the past. But if we use the same objectivity on the research behind added sugars as when we design an “unbiased” clinical trial, then we must recognize that large data gaps exist. Research on the health effects of added sugar consumption is not black or white… in fact, it’s rather grey. Other carbohydrates such as starches in refined grains like white bread and rice elicit very similar health effects. Many clinical trials show weight gain is the same among subjects who consume added sugars as compared to those consuming an equal number of calories in the form of another nutrient (i.e., protein or fat). Again, I’m not saying added sugar is okay. I’m stating that the sugar industry has valid point that should be objectively considered in the health context.
Some scientists have made national media headlines and sold millions of dollars’ worth of what I deem as “conspiracy theory” books that point out the industry funding that is already transparently stated in every one of my (and all my colleagues) published studies. If I had one-tenth of the profits from those conspiracy theory books and headlines, I’d likely be halfway to solving the obesity epidemic versus creating fake news.
Most people who know me will attest that there isn’t much that will keep my opinion silent. If my only criticism is that my published research is industry funded… well that tells me I’m a pretty damn good scientist!