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The Food Industry's Influence In Nutrition Research


This week, the Journal of the American Medical Association's Internal Medicine reported that the sugar industry paid for scientists in the 1960s to produce research that would downplay the link between sugar and heart disease. The group's payment was not disclosed when the study was published.

And over the next decade, the sugar industry continued to fund similar research surreptitiously. Today, the food industry continues to spend millions of dollars on nutrition research. One study suggests as much as 90 percent of the studies that are funded by the food industry come up with outcomes that favor the sponsor's interest.

Dr. Michael Jacobson is president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit group that advocates for safer and healthier foods. Thanks for being with us.

MICHAEL JACOBSON: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Looking back on these studies, were they just wrong?

JACOBSON: The studies really skewed the evidence at the time. And I think it was unfortunate that these papers were published because they influenced the public discussion about the health impact of sugar.

SIMON: The question that news of a study like this, I think, raises for everybody is, how do you know what information to trust?

JACOBSON: Well, it's increasingly hard. You know, I think, in terms of the media, journalists need to do a much better job of asking people they interview about conflicts of interest and then reporting them. But you asked, what should people believe?

And when there's so much controversy, I think the bottom line is pronouncements, major reports by agencies like the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, the American Heart Association that have a very cautious philosophy of not going off deep ends without strong evidence.

SIMON: Don't a lot of Americans think that scientists can't be bought?

JACOBSON: I think that is probably the general belief. But that reputation is eroding in light of one expose after another. And we see every industry - they're all polluting the scientific literature with mediocre studies that never should've been published. And then there are newspaper stories.

So beef contains this molecule, which might be healthful, notwithstanding all the other molecules in beef that are probably not so healthful. So scientists should be doing a better job of guarding their own reputations and of the general scientific community.

SIMON: I'm trying to put myself back in the framework of these times. Shouldn't the sugar industry be paying scientists to find out about what's in it?

JACOBSON: They certainly could be doing that. But their financial interests intervene. Do they want to fund studies that might indict their products? No. And it's much broader than the funding of science here. Industries do everything they can to enhance the reputations of the industry and their products.

And they will use lobbyists here in Washington, massive advertising campaigns, funding of nonprofit organizations or creating non-profit organizations to carry their water. This is a whole huge political issue.

But there are certainly things that could be done, like mandatory disclosure in medical journals and including conflicts of interest statements in the abstracts that are used by millions of scientists, journalists and the public. So that's a way to kind of integrate information about financial interests into the system.

SIMON: Dr. Michael Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, thanks for being with us.

JACOBSON: Thanks very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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