Funding bias in scientific research is certainly not news. Companies use various tools to sway public opinion in favour of their products, and a press release on amazing health benefits as proved by such-and-such study is a great tool in that arsenal, especially in the current age of unscrupulous, fast-paced online publishing.
Now and then you come across a study with results awfully convenient for the company or organisation that funded or even participated in the research. Here are a few fun examples.
Cranberry juice prevents UTIs, says cranberry juice manufacturer
Sure, cranberries contain compounds that can prevent bacteria such as E. coli from adhering to the inside of the urinary tract. But dosage is everything, and chugging cranberry juice is unlikely to provide enough of the good stuff to really make a difference in urinary tract infections.
There’s no shortage of systematic reviews on this, but that didn’t stop the major cranberry juice manufacturer Ocean Spray to partake in a recent study on the topic - and find some striking results. A closer look reveals that the way the researchers chose to measure and analyse their data lead to an effect that’s much higher than what you could expect.
Pregnant women should devour avocados, says avocado promoter
Avocados are pretty damn good - delicious and full of nutritionally beneficial compounds. Which is why it’s not surprising to read a paper which claims that pregnant women can capitalise on the green fruits’ multitude of benefits.
A systematic review is also a good thing, it means that a team of scientists has combed through piles of research to reach a conclusion based on more than one data point.
But when headlines turn that into a yarn of “new study says avocados are a pregnancy superfood”, the Hass Avocado Board can be pretty happy about paying consulting fees to the researchers who performed the review.
Artificial sweetener worse for you than sugar, says sugar promoter
In a famous case from 2008, the artificial sweetener sucralose under the brand name Splenda was shown by Duke University researchers to have detrimental health effects in rats. The research was funded by the Sugar Association, a US sugar industry promotions body.
A year later an expert panel review of the study concluded that “the study was deficient in several critical areas and that its results cannot be interpreted as evidence that either Splenda, or sucralose, produced adverse effects in male rats.”
Health scares about artificial sweeteners are an ongoing topic, but “large studies involving people have now provided strong evidence that artificial sweeteners are safe for humans,” states Cancer Research UK.
Walnuts can stave off diabetes, says walnut grower body
In another example of blatant “eat this thing we make to improve your health,” a recent study showed that including walnuts in your diet is a great way to improve it, especially if you’re at risk of diabetes.
For the California Walnut Commission, who paid for this research, a headline-making study like this is sure to help boost walnut sales. After all, a handful a day is quite a portion, and diabetes is a massive public health issue.
Not all studies, though
Unfortunately, funding bias has also become fodder for conspiracy theories spun by those who choose to believe that any counter-intuitive scientific result must have been “paid for” - but let’s not confuse vigilance with irrationality.
While it pays to remember that industries can and do influence scientific research, this is not an invitation to start viewing all studies with suspicion.
However, do remember that conflict of interest has been tainting nutrition science for quite some time, and if a study says something is the latest superfood, see if the growers of that superfood might be mentioned somewhere in the acknowledgments. As a rule of thumb, independent systematic reviews are always a better source of information than one study, regurgitated from a press release.