Nutrition research increases our understanding of health and guides the development of public health policies and recommendations. However, conflict of interests occurs when some industries fund studies in what appears to be a marketing ploy. This Honest Nutrition feature addresses these controversies.
Written by Amber Charles, MSPH, RDN on August 9, 2021 — Fact checked by Alexandra Sanfins, Ph.D.
This series of Special Features takes an in-depth look at the science behind some of the most debated nutrition-related topics, weighing in on the facts and debunking the myths.
Research is the collection of information and facts through the investigation or examination of a topic of interest.
New research into nutrition and dietetics plays a vital role in deepening our understanding of health, disease prevention, and disease management.
Data obtained from nutrition research provide scientific evidence that informs public policymakingTrusted Source and health recommendations, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
However, a predominance of lab-based and animal studies and few research studies examining human dietary patterns highlight the gaps in nutrition research.
More funded human research is necessary to deepen scientific understanding of, and evidence for, the role of food and dietary supplements in health outcomes, dosages, and intervention periods.
Types of nutrition research
Varying types of nutrition research provide different outcomes, leading to a range of scientific conclusions.
Observational studies, such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)Trusted Source, observe the effect of food and lifestyle habits on health outcomes.
These observational studies — namely cohort and case-control studies.
can only highlight associations between foods and health outcomes and cannot definitively determine the cause of the health outcome.
For example, excessive sugar intake has associationsTrusted Source with overweight and adverse health conditions, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, and inflammatory diseases.
Experimental studies, however, implement specific nutrition interventions that enable scientists to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between foods and health outcomes.
For instance, researchers have shown that increased intakeTrusted Source of dietary fiber can improve glycemic control by reducing blood sugar levels. This type of study allows for definitive answers.
The controversy: Who funds nutrition research
Despite nutrition’s vital role in public health, research into the topic continues to be an underfunded and controversial area.
Nutrition is one of the few disciplines with direct links to product marketing.
In fact, a 2016 review of almost 200 published studies revealed that the funding source was directly related to the study’s conclusions.
This meant that industry-funded studies did not show unfavorable outcomes. However, roughly 40% of non-industry-funded studies did highlight unfavorable product outcomes.
Funding agencies each have focus areas that dictate which research projects are eligible for their financial support. Some companies even fund studies to build a pool of scientific evidence that doubles as a marketing strategy.
While some companies have responsibly engaged in research, others might influenceTrusted Source research agendas that may forsake public health and persuade policymaking for their commercial benefits.
This is exemplified through the funding of smaller research groupsTrusted Source and think tanks that conduct research without an overt connection to the parent company, and is a conflict of interest, such as in this 2018 articleTrusted Source, which declares the authors’ competing interests.”
Ethical considerations and funding
The successful execution of a research study often relies on external funding, such as grantsTrusted Source and sponsorships.
Though conducting smaller scientific studies without external funding is possible, high-quality and reliable nutrition research often requires larger, well-designed, and well-funded studies.
Although public funding from organizations, such as the National Institute of Health (NIH)Trusted Source, is available, private industries and companies fund many nutrition research projects. This can raise ethical concerns about lobbying, bias, nondisclosure, and truthful reporting.
Reliance on private funding can occur because of limited public funding for nutrition research.
This means that regulating the fundingTrusted Source of nutrition research and full disclosure reporting is a delicate balancing act and not as simple as discontinuing funding from private sources.
Stopping private funding would not only diminish research of important areas of nutrition but might also lead to the loss of the expertise of advisory groups.
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They discussed the eight principlesTrusted Source proposed by the ILSI in 2009 that address conflict of interest guidelines for nutrition research. Key highlights include:
Objective research: sponsored research must be transparent, follow defined principles of scientific inquiry, and must not favor a particular outcome.
Payment for outcome: no participants in the study should offer or accept payments to favor the research outcome.
Full disclosure: all those involved in the study must declare financial interests, paid authorship, and affiliations.
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Political influence: A threat to research funding?
In an ideal setting, nutrition research should inform public policy and as merit for passing bills in government.
such as the Gluten in Medicine Disclosure Act of 2021 in the U.S.
However, the threat of politics means that congressional intercession can disregard even the most scientifically sound nutrition research.
A well-known instance of this occurred when Senator William Proxmire introduced the Vitamin Bill in the mid-1970s despite appeals from many health-based organizations.
including the National Nutrition Consortium, American Dietetic Association, and the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association.
This bill prevented the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from regulating the potency and number of ingredients in vitamin supplements.
The FDA, however, can regulate market claims made by supplement products.
The bottom line
Nutrition research is one of the few scientific disciplines linked to product marketing and is prone to lobbying and nondisclosure conflicts of interest.
It is also a relatively underserved and underfunded science.
with many private sponsors and grants directed at topics with commercial benefits to the funding agency.
Despite these ethical challenges, there is a need for greater research funding into human nutrition and dietary patterns.
A delicate balance exists between regulating private sources of funds with transparent and factual research. However, the ASN and other regulating bodies have developed principles to protect the scientific rigor and credibility of nutrition research.