Food Industry-Funded Research Bias

Food Industry-Funded Research Bias
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Using the tobacco industry playbook, food companies have been caught trying to undermine public health policies by manipulating the scientific process.

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Just like mosquitos are the vectors of spread for malaria, a landmark article published last year in one of the most prestigious medical journals described food corporations as the vectors of spread for chronic disease. Unlike infectious disease epidemics, however, these corporate disease vectors implement sophisticated campaigns to undermine public health interventions. Most mosquitoes can’t afford the top-notch PR firms.

A key message was that alcohol and ultra-processed food and drink industries use similar strategies to the tobacco industry to undermine effective public health policies and programs. What they mean by ultra-processed is things like burgers, frozen meals, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, potato chips, doughnuts, and soda pop.

Ultra-processed foods and drinks can be thought of as a menace to public health all over the world. The best recommendation on all ultra-processed foods, irrespective of their nutrient profiles, is to avoid them, or at least minimize their consumption.

But how is the food industry like the tobacco industry? The first strategy is to bias research findings. For example, Philip Morris implemented the Whitecoat Project to hire doctors to publish ghostwritten confounder studies purporting to negate links between second-hand smoke and harm, publishing biased cherry-picked scientific reports to deny harm, and suppress health information. This is the actual internal industry memo describing the Whitecoat Project, designed to reverse the scientific “misconception” that secondhand smoke is harmful.

Similarly, funding from these large food corporations biases research. Studies show systematic bias from industry funding, so we get the same kind of tactics from the food industry—supplying misinformation, use of supposedly conflicting evidence, and hiding negative data.

The same scientists-for-hire who downplayed the risks of secondhand smoke are the same hired by the likes of the National Confectioners Association to say candy cigarettes are A-OK as well. Of course, Exponent declared no conflict of interest.

The similarities between strategies used by the tobacco, alcohol, and food and drink corporations are unsurprising in view of the flow of people, funds, and activities across these industries, which also have histories of joint ownership—like Philip Morris owned both Kraft and Miller Brewing.

So what’s their strategy? As a former FDA commissioner described, the tobacco industry’s strategy was embodied in a script written by the lawyers. Every tobacco company executive in the public eye was told to learn the script backwards and forwards; no deviation was allowed. The basic premise was simple— smoking had not been proved to cause cancer. Not proven, not proven, not proven—this was stated insistently and repeatedly. Inject a thin wedge of doubt; create controversy; never deviate from the prepared line. It was a simple plan and it worked.

Internal industry memos make this explicit. Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the mind of the general public. See, the general public is convinced that cigarettes are in some way harmful to health. They believed their own propaganda. So, objective #1: To set aside in the minds of millions the false conviction that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and other diseases–a conviction based on fanatical assumptions, fallacious rumors, unsupported claims and the unscientific statements and conjectures of publicity-seeking opportunists. We need to lift the cigarette from the cancer identification as quickly as possible, and to establish–once and for all–that no scientific evidence has ever been produced, presented or submitted to prove conclusively that cigarette smoking causes cancer, similar to what’s now coming out of the food industry, from the same folks that bought us smoke and candy.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Centers for Disease ControlBeao, and Lnmrl Beao via Wikimedia Commons and Steve Snodgrass via Flickr.

Just like mosquitos are the vectors of spread for malaria, a landmark article published last year in one of the most prestigious medical journals described food corporations as the vectors of spread for chronic disease. Unlike infectious disease epidemics, however, these corporate disease vectors implement sophisticated campaigns to undermine public health interventions. Most mosquitoes can’t afford the top-notch PR firms.

A key message was that alcohol and ultra-processed food and drink industries use similar strategies to the tobacco industry to undermine effective public health policies and programs. What they mean by ultra-processed is things like burgers, frozen meals, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, potato chips, doughnuts, and soda pop.

Ultra-processed foods and drinks can be thought of as a menace to public health all over the world. The best recommendation on all ultra-processed foods, irrespective of their nutrient profiles, is to avoid them, or at least minimize their consumption.

But how is the food industry like the tobacco industry? The first strategy is to bias research findings. For example, Philip Morris implemented the Whitecoat Project to hire doctors to publish ghostwritten confounder studies purporting to negate links between second-hand smoke and harm, publishing biased cherry-picked scientific reports to deny harm, and suppress health information. This is the actual internal industry memo describing the Whitecoat Project, designed to reverse the scientific “misconception” that secondhand smoke is harmful.

Similarly, funding from these large food corporations biases research. Studies show systematic bias from industry funding, so we get the same kind of tactics from the food industry—supplying misinformation, use of supposedly conflicting evidence, and hiding negative data.

The same scientists-for-hire who downplayed the risks of secondhand smoke are the same hired by the likes of the National Confectioners Association to say candy cigarettes are A-OK as well. Of course, Exponent declared no conflict of interest.

The similarities between strategies used by the tobacco, alcohol, and food and drink corporations are unsurprising in view of the flow of people, funds, and activities across these industries, which also have histories of joint ownership—like Philip Morris owned both Kraft and Miller Brewing.

So what’s their strategy? As a former FDA commissioner described, the tobacco industry’s strategy was embodied in a script written by the lawyers. Every tobacco company executive in the public eye was told to learn the script backwards and forwards; no deviation was allowed. The basic premise was simple— smoking had not been proved to cause cancer. Not proven, not proven, not proven—this was stated insistently and repeatedly. Inject a thin wedge of doubt; create controversy; never deviate from the prepared line. It was a simple plan and it worked.

Internal industry memos make this explicit. Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the mind of the general public. See, the general public is convinced that cigarettes are in some way harmful to health. They believed their own propaganda. So, objective #1: To set aside in the minds of millions the false conviction that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and other diseases–a conviction based on fanatical assumptions, fallacious rumors, unsupported claims and the unscientific statements and conjectures of publicity-seeking opportunists. We need to lift the cigarette from the cancer identification as quickly as possible, and to establish–once and for all–that no scientific evidence has ever been produced, presented or submitted to prove conclusively that cigarette smoking causes cancer, similar to what’s now coming out of the food industry, from the same folks that bought us smoke and candy.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Centers for Disease ControlBeao, and Lnmrl Beao via Wikimedia Commons and Steve Snodgrass via Flickr.

Doctor's Note

This is part of a series of “political” videos I’ve put together. Collaboration with the New Vectors of Disease was the previous one with a bunch more coming up. Why don’t I just “stick to the science”? When there are billions of dollars at stake, the body of evidence can be skewed and manipulated. Funders can determine which studies are performed, how they’re performed, and whether or not they get published at all. That’s why I think it’s important to take a broader view to account for the ways the scientific method can be perverted for profit.

Here are some examples:

2019 update: Check out the new video I published – A Political Lesson on the Power of the Food Industry.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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