Is a snickers bar the new cigarette?

Does eating too much fat and sugar have the same consequences as smoking? We don’t know…maybe because the answer is being covered up by the food industry. A compelling article by Brownell and Warner (2009) available here compares the tobacco industry’s errant actions to the food industry’s latest tactics. The tobacco industry tried for years to deny the negative health effects of smoking and second hand smoke. This included lying to the public, paying policy makers to support their cause, and criticizing strong research showing a link between smoking and lung cancer. Brownell and Warner offer a complete discussion of the similarities and differences between the tobacco and food industry; including acknowledging that the two are very different since we do need food to survive.
In my opinion, one of the most interesting pieces was about the potential problems that can arise when industries sponsor researcher. Before I started grad school I worked at the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center with a brilliant research team – that was often funded by cancer drug companies. To me, it makes sense for these big companies (that make a ton of money!) to cover some of the research costs. (For those non-scientists out there reading this, most psychology research, is funded by the government and non-profit foundations.) However, this article points out four potential problems with research studies that are funded by a specific industry. First, the way the study is run or the interpretation of the findings can be biased…both intentionally and unintentionally by the study staff and principal investigators. Second, specific researchers and professional organizations are competing for a limited amount of research funding and thus may make public statements that support the industry’s causes in order to get grants. The public of course then trusts what these “experts” are saying. Third, scientists elected to be members of relevant organizations (eg. Dietary Guidelines Committee for the food industry) can have biased influence on policies in order to maintain research funds from the industry. And fourth, industry companies claim that their research teams find the “truth” and use the often biased results in marketing and advertising campaigns.

An example of this is a meta-analysis conducted by Vartanian, Schwartz, and Brownell (2007) on the relationship between drinking soda and health. They specifically wanted to know whether research studies funded by the food industry produce significantly different results then studies not funded by the food industry. The results of 88 studies found strong evidence for a connection between drinking soda, poor nutrition, and bad health (e.g. weight gain, higher risk of diabetes). Studies funded by the food industry however, reported significantly smaller relationships between soda drinking and poor health. Their research was biased! Well of course it was… they wouldn’t want vending machines to be removed from public schools, think of what that would do to their bottom line! Our bottom line however, is this: Be cautious with what research you trust. Be an active consumer. And stay away from soda!