Have you ever heard that cranberry juice can stop you from getting a UTI? That pomegranate juice is awesome for your heart? Or perhaps that soda actually isn't that unhealthy?
Although you might not know it, many of these claims were the product of a study funded by multinational food and beverage companies, the same people who stand to profit from the idea.
Industry-sponsored nutrition research is surprisingly common. If you read a news article about health or nutrition research, it barely ever states who funded or supported the research. Usually, that information is only found at the bottom of the paper or in a footnote of a press release. As any lawyer or hired PR professional could tell you, findings from industry-funded studies are by no means invalid, faked, forged, or figments of the imagination. They too undergo the same amount of scrutiny as any peer-reviewed paper.
That said, it has been known to raise a bunch of problems when it comes to their reliability. One scientific review in 2007 found that nutrition studies that received industry support were 4-8 times more likely to be favorable to the financial interests of the sponsors. In 2016, nutrition and public health professor Marion Nestle – no connection to Nestlé, presumably – collected a total of 168 industry-funded studies, 156 of which reached a conclusion favorable to the sponsor’s interests.
In the spirit of transparency, here’s a short round-up of studies that have received funding from the industry of the food or drink they are investigating.
Grape Juice Makes Moms Awesome At Driving
In what must be one of the most bizarre examples out there, Welch’s supported a study in 2016 that found grape juice helps to improve the driving of mothers with pre-teen children. One study author was even an employee of Welch Foods Inc. On top of upping the driving skills of mothers, their experiments also showed that a nice refreshing glass of grape juice a day could help working moms improve their cognitive skills and memory.
The study even stated that they used Welch’s-brand juice in their experiments (for the sake of replicability, obviously).
Sugary Soda Isn’t The Problem, You Are
In 2015, Coca-Cola quietly backed an initiative that downplayed the role of their sugary products on obesity. Coca-Cola donated millions of dollars to the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN), a non-profit group that promotes the idea that lack of exercise (rather than bad diet and too much sugary soda) was the primary cause of the obesity epidemic.
In emails published by the Associated Press, Dr James O Hill, GEBN’s president, told a top Coke executive: “I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.”
In a similar email, he wrote that it was “not fair” that Coca-Cola was singled out as “the No. 1 villain in the obesity world,” according to The New York Times.
UTIs And Cranberries
A study in 2016 concluded that guzzling cranberry juice every day could prevent the recurrence of urinary tract infections (UTIs) in women with a history of the infection.
Good news, eh? It was especially good news for Ocean Spray, the cranberry producers who supported the study and employed two of the study authors. According to Vox, “Not only was the food company involved in nearly every step of the process but its scientists even helped write the manuscript.”
Candy-Eating Kids Weigh Less, Says Candy Makers
The trade association representing the makers of Butterfingers, Hershey, and Skittles – the National Confectioners Association – funded a study in 2011 that managed to show children who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who don’t. For many media outlets, the obvious conclusion was something along the lines of “Candy Doesn't Cause Childhood Obesity.”
If that doesn’t sound suspicious enough in itself, the Associated Press later obtained emails that appeared to show the researchers discussing how they could frame the findings in a certain light. “We’re hoping they can do something with it – it’s thin and clearly padded,” one email between the researchers read.
Sugar-Funded Studies… Again
The Sugar Association, a trade association for the sugar industry, has had many stabs at funding research. In 2008, they gave a grant to Duke University to study how the gut bacteria of rats was affected by eating Splenda, a brand of artificial sweetener used as an alternative to sugar. They concluded that Splenda caused “numerous adverse effects” to the sweetener-laced rats, namely reducing levels of their good gut bacteria and increasing the pH of poop.
This was not their first attack against Splenda, a potential competitor to their previously unchallenged throne. Just a few years before this study, the Sugar Association also entered a legal battle with the makers of Splenda, arguing that the company was misleading consumers by saying their product was made from sugar.
McNeil Nutritionals, a Johnson & Johnson company that markets Splenda, was not pleased with the results and requested an independent detailed review of the report. Lo and behold, it concluded that the 2008 Duke study was “not scientifically rigorous and is deficient in several critical areas that preclude reliable interpretation of the study results.”
The Big Claims Of Pomegranate Juice
Pomegranate-peddlers POM Wonderful has reportedly poured over $35 million into research looking into the health benefits of drinking pomegranate juice. The findings of the studies were used to bolster their advertising campaigns that depicted pomegranate juice as a healthy beverage, even suggesting their pomegranate supplement pills could help treat many serious diseases.
However, a handful of their claims were “false and unsubstantiated,” in the words of the US government’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC). A chain of warning letters, cease and desist orders, and complaints by the FTC finally amounted to an official court order to stop POM making serious health claims about their products unless it was confirmed by scientists in two randomized human trials.
“POM had not substantiated any of its disease claims with positive results from even one well-controlled clinical trial,” the FTC said in a statement in May 2014. “POM knew that its target consumers would pay a premium if they believed that these products would combat the diseases they feared most, including heart disease and prostate cancer.”
POM denied any wrongdoing and argued its big claims were legitimately supported by science. They appealed the decision, but the ruling was upheld in 2016.
Last year, a massively publicized study loudly proclaimed eating cheese and other dairy products does not increase one's risk of heart attacks and strokes. One headline even read: “A piece of cheese a day keeps the doctor away.”
In notes of the study, it states that the research was “partly funded by an unrestricted grant from the Global Dairy Platform, Dairy Research Institute, and Dairy Australia.” If you take a look at the “Conflict of Interest” section, you’ll see that researchers are affiliated with a bunch of companies in the dairy industry, including the Dutch Dairy Association, the Danish Dairy Research Foundation, and the Dairy Council. Other researchers served as consultants or advisors to food industry giants like McDonald’s, Nestlé, and McCain's.
Coca-Cola Hydrates Humans
In 2013, a study looked to see how caffeinated, non-caffeinated, caloric, and non-caloric drinks affected hydration levels. However, they discovered “no differences” between all the different drinks when they looked at the participants' hydration levels, as well as the electrolytes present in their pee. That includes the caloric and caffeinated cola featured in the study.
Remember, always check the small print. In the study’s acknowledgment section it notes: “Supported by a grant from The Coca-Cola Company.”