Marion Nestle Wants Us to Be Skeptical of Industry-Funded Research
Marion Nestle has been hailed as one of the most powerful foodies in the world. Dr. Nestle, who is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, has had an immeasurable influence on the good food movement. She is well known for taking on industry giants and punching above her weight class (a fact made more literal by the punching bag in the shape of a Coke can that hangs in her office). Dr. Nestle’s 2002 book “Food Politics” is required reading for anyone interested in disrupting the food system status quo, and she basically invented the field known as “Food Studies.” Her most recent book, “Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat” just came out this month and is already making a splash.
Your new book is called, “Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.” What prompted you to write a book on industry-funded research?
The New York Times wrote about the Global Energy Balance Network in a front-page story in 2015 in which they talked about how Coca-Cola was funding researchers who were arguing that physical activity is more important than diet and what we eat, and weren’t discussing publicly that Coca-Cola was sponsoring what they were doing. It looked really bad. I was quoted in the article and my quotation ran across the top of an entire inside page. And I got called probably by 30 reporters. And what amazed me about the conversations was how shocked they were that, first, Coca-Cola would fund research that was so obviously in its self-interest; second, researchers would accept that funding; and third, that the universities that they worked for would allow them to. And I thought, “Holy smoke, if reporters who are working for newspapers and magazines don’t know how this game is played, I’ve got another book to write.”
There turns out to be a library of books, not one, a library of books about the effects of industry funding in social science literature, psychology literature and especially about the pharmaceutical industry. And in food there was nothing.
And you’ve been in the nutrition field for, what, 40 years? So why now?
Oh, I think people are ready to hear it more. It’s in the newspapers all the time. The most recent one was the series of articles in The New York Times about the study at the Alcohol Institute in NIH that was funded by five alcohol industries where it was clear that the money had been solicited. It was almost $70 million for the study and that the study was clearly being designed to show that a drink a day of alcohol is good for people, reduced their heart disease risk and had no other problems. Because they weren’t looking for any other problems.
I think that industry funding adds to the distrust. I’m arguing that any time you see an industry-funded study you should be suspicious of it, particularly if the outcome favors that particular product.
Which industry seems to have the biggest stranglehold on the researchers studying it?
Well, first of all, they all do. Almost any industry that’s funding research on single foods is looking for results that they can use in marketing.
Scientific research funding has plateaued or decreased at the federal level. Has this contributed to an increase in industry funding?
There’s no question that government funding is down for certain kinds of nutrition research and that industry has moved in to fill the gap. And there are lots of people who feel that this is a completely legitimate way to fund their research and aren’t questioning whether it’s a good idea or not a good idea.
I think the difficulty that I have with the funded research is that it’s on questions that scientists probably wouldn’t be asking if they weren’t paid to do it. The pomegranate is an easy example. The pomegranate industry is funding research to show that pomegranates have antioxidant activity. I could have told them that — all fruits have antioxidant activity.
There’s a growing national skepticism about science and expertise. Do you worry that bringing more attention to this issue could further erode the public’s trust in science?
Yeah, actually, I worry about it a lot. In the last chapter in the book I try to talk about where I think the skepticism should go. I think that industry funding adds to the distrust. I’m arguing that any time you see an industry-funded study you should be suspicious of it, particularly if the outcome favors that particular product.
Every researcher who is doing a study of any kind has a hypothesis that that researcher would like to see verified. That’s what science is about, testing hypotheses. And all scientists have scientific preferences and things they want to prove. That’s true of science completely; you can’t do science without that. But you certainly can do science without food industry funding.
What can consumers do to equip themselves to better understand scientific research?
Well, they can be skeptical if it’s industry-funded. And the basic question for anybody looking at scientific research is: does it make sense? If it doesn’t make sense there’s probably something wrong with it. Does it fit with what you know about science? If it says it’s a breakthrough, that’s a red flag. That’s not how science works. Science doesn’t usually work in breakthroughs. Science works in increments and you add incremental knowledge onto the knowledge that you already had. And whenever I see a statement like, “Everything You Thought You Knew About Nutrition Was Wrong” — red flag! Be suspicious of that one.
You hope that reporters writing about these things are writing about them honestly and reliably and are commenting on who paid for the study. Because often they don’t, and I think they should. That would make it much easier for the public to judge what level of skepticism needs to be employed.
And then I think people should read some scientific studies. You won’t understand all of them. That’s okay. You understand enough of them to be able to ask good questions. That’s the one message I want to get across is read the original study, get the original study and read as much of it as you can.
So how do you think we can restore public trust in food and nutrition research?
I think the first thing is transparency. Companies and nutrition researchers have to be held to a higher standard of accountability if they want people to trust them, they have to behave in a trustworthy way. In response to the enormous embarrassment that it faced from that New York Times article, Coca-Cola changed its practices to try to become more transparent. How successful it is, we can argue about. But it at least recognized that it was in trouble over that. [In terms of research], are you asking an open-ended research question where you don’t know the answer in advance and you really want to find out what the answer is?
I think the first thing is transparency. Companies and nutrition researchers have to be held to a higher standard of accountability if they want people to trust them, they have to behave in a trustworthy way.
Should we discount these studies entirely if they are funded by food companies?
I would say be skeptical but keep an open mind and see what further research shows. And everybody should be arguing for more funding for basic research, everybody.
While you were doing research for this book, were any of your findings particularly surprising?
Yeah, I think the big surprise was how many companies were involved in this. For a year on my website, I just put up examples of studies that were funded by food companies with results usually favorable to the sponsor. At the end of that year, I had 168 studies posted and something like 156 had results that favored the industry. That was not very scientifically done, but the only conclusion that I could come to was that it was easier to find studies funded by industry that were favorable to the sponsor than those that were unfavorable.
You’ve expressed optimism for the shift in people’s interest in where their food comes from and the push for transparency. How do you maintain that optimism?
I teach students. I think if you deal with students you have to [maintain optimism] because they get depressed really easily. It’s not my job to depress students. I see my job as to get students to take action and to act to try to create a better food system. And the only way you can do that is to be optimistic. And there are plenty of grounds for optimism if you look at the changes in the food system over the last 20 or 25 years. Better food is available. My favorite example is that there are more food studies programs. When we started ours in 1996, we were it. Now there’s loads of them everywhere — so many people interested in food. That itself is grounds for optimism. Get out there and fix the system. Too late for me, but you can do it.