8 Times Food Companies Funded Studies to Prove Their Product Was "Healthy"
You're not supposed to believe everything you read, but tack the word "science" to something and many people will take it as fact — no questions asked.
This is why big food companies have percolated into the world of nutrition science. If food marketers can "uncover" a health benefit to consuming a company's products, then those products will sell better. That's not "science," it's reality.
A 2015 report pulled back the curtain on the close relationships between nutrition scientists and food companies. It found that the American Society for Nutrition accepts sweet sums of cash to produce research that falls in the favor of big food companies. The ASN allows companies like PepsiCo, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and McDonald's to sponsor events and supply researchers from their own boards to see through scientific research.
To put it timidly, these partnerships amount to serious conflicts of interest. The food brands get what they want (their products sold), scientists get what they're after (funding to perform research) and the public is left with misinformation. This is only further fueled by hyperbolic news headlines — like the findings outlined in the list below.
Read on to unwrap just a few real scientific studies that have been manipulated by big food companies in ways that are sometimes hidden so deeply, they're not even in the study's footnotes.
Finding #1: Drinking cranberry juice will cure a UTI.
For years, people have been told that sitting in a cranberry bog could reduce the agony felt from a urinary tract infection. (OK, maybe not a bog, per se.) But it turns out that all the cash shelled out for cranberry juice is for absolutely nothing.
A recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a glass of cranberry juice a day reduced UTI symptoms by close to 40% in women. Ocean Spray, the biggest cranberry juice producer on the planet, funded this study. To add insult to injury, real Ocean Spray staff scientists co-authored the research, Vox reported. "Not only was the food company involved in nearly every step of the process but its scientists even helped write the manuscript."
This information was not included in the study's press release, Vox said.
Even worse, the science in the Ocean Spray-funded study is all wrong. Real cranberries contain an active ingredient called proanthocyanidins. PACs can keep bacteria from binding to the walls of the bladder, they don't show up in most commercial cranberry juices.
"It takes an extremely large concentration of cranberry to prevent bacterial adhesion," Dr. Timothy Boone, of Texas A&M Health Science Center said in a statement. "This amount of concentration is not found in the juices we drink. There's a possibility it was stronger back in our grandparents' day, but definitely not in modern times."
The Ocean Spray masterminds were able to fudge their study by analyzing "symptoms" rather than infections. In other words, the study participants didn't even need to have a UTI to show signs of an improved UTI. Vox explained it best:
Imagine you give cranberry juice to 10 women, and another 10 women act as the control group and get sugar water. Let's say everyone in the sugar water group gets a UTI and no one in the cranberry group does. That would mean you prevent 10 women getting 10 events — and that the cranberry juice is a very effective treatment.
Finding #2: Diet soda is better than water for weight loss.
A study published in the International Journal of Obesity suggested that diet soda could promote weight loss better than than water, the hydrating liquid that comes naturally from the planet and makes up around 60% of the human body.
The study was backed and funded by the International Life Sciences Institute, whose members include both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Even worse, some of the study's co-authors were paid the equivalent of $1,100, the Independent reported.
While more than 5,500 papers were reviewed, the findings were based off a mere three. And of those three, only one of the papers showed any significant weight loss. When scientists are paid by brands, and when funding isn't initially disclosed — which in this study, it was not — the results reek of being rigged.
"To suggest that diet drinks are more healthy that drinking water is laughable unscientific nonsense," cardiologist Aseem Malhotra told the Independent. "If you want good science you cannot allow corporate sponsorship of research."
Finding #3: Kids who eat candy tend to weigh less.
It would be cute if a fourth grader wrote this study to convince their parents to permit extra Snickers from their Halloween bag.
Instead, it's written by sticky-fingered adults who work for the National Confectioners Association, a trade group that represents candy manufacturers. In this case, the Associated Press uncovered an email written by a co-author of the study that pretty much stated that the results were calculated for the benefit of a company. "We're hoping they can do something with it — it's thin and clearly padded," the email stated, with the study abstract attached.
Finding #4: Dannon's Activia yogurt regulates your poop.
Just because Jamie Lee Curtis says it doesn't mean it's true. This yogurt debacle is a little different than the other examples above, however: In 2010 the Federal Trade Commission charged Dannon with deception in advertising and false health claims.
"Dannon claimed in nationwide advertising campaigns that DanActive helps prevent colds and flu, and that one daily serving of Activia relieves temporary irregularity and helps with "slow intestinal transit time,'" the FTC's press release stated. "In television, Internet, and print ads, as well as on product packaging, Dannon also stated that there was scientific proof to back up these claims."
There was no scientific proof, and Dannon's health claims were false, according to the FTC. Dannon skipped over the step of funding a study in order to get results and just went straight for the punchline. The company's move to slap health benefits onto its products is a nod to something they know about consumers: If something appears healthy, people will buy it. A 2015 Consumer Reports survey found that more than half of consumers seek out products that are marketed as healthy.
Finding #5: A breakfast of hot oatmeal will keep you fuller for longer than cereal.
Research published in the Journal of American College Nutrition alleged that, calorie for calorie, instant oatmeal satiates breakfast eaters more efficiently than oat-based cereals.
This study, which included a mere 44 participants, was funded by Quaker Oats (which, fun fact, is owned by PepsiCo). This finding was published only after a researcher could not prove that Quaker Oatmeal Squares would satiate people for longer than Honey Nut Cheerios, the AP reported.
"PepsiCo decided to publish only the results about its oatmeal," the AP wrote. "In statements, PepsiCo and the LSU researchers said the other half of the trial's results were not significant enough to merit publication."
Finding #6: Eating cheese will lower your cholesterol.
If only. This 2011 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined the cholesterol of just 49 adults over the course of six weeks. It found that "cheese lowers [low-density lipoprotein] cholesterol when compared with butter intake of equal fat content." So really, cheese is more effective at lowering cholesterol than butter. That doesn't mean you should eat wheels of it.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with this study, when shared with the masses, its meaning can be muddled. Ultimately, the study got watered down and interpreted to mean that eating cheese is a healthy way to lower cholesterol levels. This particular research was funded by the Danish Dairy Board and the National Dairy Research Institute, two groups that have high stakes in the dairy game.
Finding #7: Chocolate is a super food.
Close your eyes and move on if this is a mantra that gets you through long days. There's a slew of research that suggests chocolate is a miracle food. And while chocolate's supposed health powers seem to be funded by the gods, several of such studies have been funded by Mars, the company that manufactures M&M's, Snickers, Twix and Dove chocolates.
As Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, pointed out on her blog "Food Politics," there at least three separate chocolate studies funded by the chocolate company. The first suggested chocolate intake supports healthy cognitive function in older people, the second suggested that chocolate supports cardiovascular health also for older people, and the third purported that chocolate may reduce general risk of cardiovascular diseases. The questionable source of funding forced skeptics to take chocolate's health benefits with a grain of salt.
Finding #8: Concord grape juice can make you a better driver.