A new analysis of studies published by top nutrition journals in 2018 shows that 13.4 percent disclosed involvement from the food industry, and studies with industry involvement were more likely to report results favorable to industry interests. Gary Sacks of Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on December 16.
Food companies might choose to become involved in nutrition research to help generate new knowledge. For instance, they might provide funding for academic research or assign employees to research teams. However, growing evidence suggests that food industry involvement could potentially bias nutrition research towards food industry interests, perhaps at the expense of public health.
To better understand the extent and potential impact of food industry involvement in research, Sacks and colleagues assessed all peer-reviewed papers published in 2018 in the top 10 most-cited academic journals related to nutrition and diet. They evaluated which papers had food industry ties, such as funding from food companies or authors affiliated with food companies, and noted whether results supported industry interests.
The analysis found that 13.4 percent of all analyzed articles reported involvement from the food industry (196/1,461), with some journals having a greater proportion of involvement than others. Compared to a random sample of studies without food industry involvement (n = 196), studies with industry involvement were over five times more likely to report results that favored food industry interests; 55.6 percent compared to 9.7 percent.
These findings add to mounting evidence that industry involvement could bias research agendas or findings towards industry interests, while potentially neglecting topics that are more important to public health. The authors of this study suggest several mechanisms that could be explored to prevent the food industry from compromising the integrity of nutrition research.
The authors add: "This study found that the food industry is commonly involved in published research from leading nutrition journals. Where the food industry is involved, research findings are nearly six times more likely to be favourable to their interests than when there is no food industry involvement."
Citation: Sacks G, Riesenberg D, Mialon M, Dean S, Cameron AJ (2020) The characteristics and extent of food industry involvement in peer-reviewed research articles from 10 leading nutrition-related journals in 2018. PLoS ONE 15(12): e0243144. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0243144
Funding: GS and AJC were supported by Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellowships (102035 and 36357, respectively) from the National Heart Foundation of Australia (https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/). GS and AJC are researchers within a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) (https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/) Centre of Research Excellence in Food Retail Environments for Health (RE-FRESH) (APP1152968) (Australia). GS is also a researcher within a NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence entitled Reducing Salt Intake Using Food Policy Interventions (APP1117300). The authors are solely responsible for the opinions, hypotheses and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication, and they do not necessarily reflect their funders' vision. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing Interests: GS and AJC are academic partners on a publicly funded healthy supermarket intervention trial that includes Australian local government and supermarket retail (IGA) collaborators. GS has been involved in studies to benchmark the policies and commitments of food companies related to obesity prevention and nutrition in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Malaysia and Europe. The authors have not received funding from any organization in the food industry. The authors have no other potential competing interests to declare. The competing interests of the authors do not alter our adherence to PLOS ONE policies on sharing data and materials.
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