Nutrition researchers and organizations provide Canadians with valuable information and help shape public policies about healthy eating, important at a time when obesity and related chronic diseases are on the rise. But many of those experts and groups are financially tied to the makers of sugar-sweetened beverages and other food companies, raising questions about their independence.
A good example of this came last December when Canadian researchers published a study that suggested guidelines that advise limiting sugar are based on low-quality evidence. Most of the ensuing public discussion focused on the fact the study was funded by an institute backed by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo., McDonald's, the Hershey Company and other food industry giants. The study authors themselves openly acknowledged the relationship with the International Life Sciences Institute and the fact it could have an impact on the findings, saying "our study team has a financial conflict of interest and readers should consider our results carefully."
What makes the case exceptional is not the fast-food companies, including those that make sugar-sweetened beverages, funded a study that concluded the current sugar-limiting advice is flawed. It's the fact the relationship and the potential conflict of interest was discussed so openly.
Food companies routinely fund nutrition- and health-related research, conferences, non-profit organizations and universities. Often, those financial relationships are disclosed through a quick mention at the end of a research paper or through a "Thank you to our generous sponsors" message on a conference program. Is the disclosure enough?
Ties between the food industry and nutrition groups
According to those involved, industry partnerships are a fact of life that is being managed through guidelines and proper disclosure of funding sources.
For instance, Kate Comeau, manager of public relations and media for Dietitians of Canada, said the organization has new policies to protect against conflicts of interest and inappropriate activities by funders, such as the Canadian Sugar Institute, which will sponsor a buffet breakfast at the professional organization's upcoming conference in June.
"You're not going to see bowls of sugar and candy at the buffet," Ms. Comeau said.
Other examples in nutrition research are easy to find: The University of Toronto's Program in Food Safety, Nutrition and Regulatory affairs has on its scientific-technical committee a number of food-industry players, including the Canadian Sugar Institute, PepsiCo., and Mead Johnson, a formula maker. Program director Harvey Anderson has published research with the Canadian Sugar Institute that found consumption of added sugars has not changed or is declining, at odds with other reports, as well as a controversial advertorial promoting the benefits of baby formula with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Mary L'Abbé, chair of the university's nutritional sciences department, said industry partnerships and sponsorships are a fact of life, but that policies and procedures are in place to minimize potential bias and conflicts. She also noted that government policy-makers don't make decisions based on one paper, but on the evidence base as a whole.
Participaction, a well-known national fitness program, has a 10-year, $10-million partnership with Coca Cola to fund health and fitness programs aimed at youth. The partnership has faced major criticism, including from Body Break host Hal Johnson, but Elio Atunes, president and CEO, said it's important to "collaborate and work together instead of sitting on the sidelines pointing fingers."
Yogurt maker Danone Inc. runs the Danone Institute of Canada, which funds nutritional research. In 2015, the institute awarded a Laval University professor $30,000 to study yogurt consumption as it relates to youth body weight and metabolic profile. Danone could not be reached for comment.
Natacha Gouveia, head of external communications for Danone Canada, said the company uses an independent scientific committee to choose grant recipients and that guidelines and ethical codes are in place to guard against conflicts of interest.
"We do not get involved in the research process whatsoever," she said. "We do not interfere, whether positive or negative."
It might seem harmless for food companies to set up exhibitor booths at conferences, fund research grants or brand health and fitness events in exchange for much-needed funding. But there are consequences, including the potential for bias.
Last year, U.S.-based nutrition expert Marion Nestle tracked research sponsored by the food industry for one year. Of the 168 studies included in her survey, 156, or about 93 per cent, had outcomes favourable to the industry sponsor.
Having food-industry representatives at nutrition conferences can have a similar effect, said Andy Bellatti, strategic director of Dietitians for Professional Integrity. For instance, a food company can set up a booth to promote its products and convey the messages it wants dietitians to pass on to the public, such as the fact sugar isn't as bad as some say. Dietitians may be able to see through overt advertising, but the messages the food industry presents at conferences are sophisticated.
"It's about ingratiating itself with a health community and these messages are very tailored," he said. "They know when they go to a nutrition conference, there's specific talking points."
After the 2015 Dietitians of Canada conference, Nestlé Canada issued a press release boasting about the chance to connect with 650 dietitians about a portion-control version of Smarties and reduced-sugar Nesquik. Seeing the "positive reaction" of dietitians "helps to reinforce that we're headed in the right direction," the release said.
You can imagine a dietitian heading home from that conference prepared to recommend some of those "healthier" options to clients looking for snack ideas.
"If you have that health professional deliver those same messages to their clients and patients, then that's ultimately what the food industry wants," Mr. Bellatti said.
South of the border, concerns over Big Food sponsorship of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world's largest organization of nutrition professionals, prompted some members to create a splinter group in 2013 called Dietitians for Professional Integrity. According to the group's website, the public "deserves nutrition information that is not tainted by food industry interests" and that sponsorships are "enabling and empowering multinational food companies."
A funding source, or source of conflict?
Decades ago, tobacco makers funnelled plenty of money to scientists and research groups in an attempt to undermine messages about the dangers of smoking. Now, when obesity rates are at an all-time high and consumption of sugary drinks, fast food and other unhealthy products is in the crosshairs, the food industry is using a similar strategy. Conflict of interest guidelines and disclosure policies can only go so far. At the end of the day, we have to remember the ultimate goals of the food industry are not aligned, and sometimes compete with, nutrition researchers and organizations. So when they fund a conference, study or program, think carefully about exactly what they may be getting in return.