We love stories about food and health. There’s nothing like hearing that your favorite bowl of cereal, or your cheeky midnight cheese, might be healthier than you thought. It’s the quintessential modern desire — that we can control our lives not just with medicines and doctors, but with the foods we eat and the way we cook them.
It’s inspired the entire field of (shudder) nutraceuticals.
And along the way, our desire to be healed by the things we eat has inspired some truly wonderful headlines. We can’t go a week without being told that some new research has come out proving that the latest food fad is going to cure your Athlete’s Foot.
The thing is, while the media is happy to play to our desires, there’s also something a little shady about a lot of food headlines. Many of them aren’t quite as organic as you might think.
Here are 5 times the food industry has funded research that has ended up misleading you in the news.
5. Milk And Cheese And Chronic Disease
The first example on our list is a beautiful one, because it is so very silly. A study came out that argued that one of the best tools for fighting a range of chronic diseases — from heart disease to sarcopenia — was dairy. Specifically, milk and cheese.
Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, the story gets a bit cheesy after that.
See, not only was this not a scientific study — it was a narrative review, which is more like an opinion piece than anything else — but the funding body threw everything into doubt. Yes, the opinion piece proclaiming dairy to be the source of all good health was funded by Big Cheese, or more specifically the Interprofessional Dairy Organization.
4. Pasta And Heart Attacks
The year is 2017. The setting, news media across the world. The new study, a wonderful example of scientific research apparently demonstrating that pasta — that delicious, Italian carb — could prevent heart attacks!
It was an amazing finding, reported across the globe.
Sadly, the truth was far more humdrum than the headlines. A small study done in mice had demonstrated that some measures of cell function were improved when they ate barley pasta, which is the sort of finding that makes scientists dismissively shrug because it means so very little.
The best part of this story? The study was entirely funded by Pastificio Attilio Mastromauro Granoro, an Italian pasta manufacturer who coincidentally offer a wide range of barley pastas.
3. Elderberries And Fighting Flu
Another delightful example is a recent study that looked at elderberries and their wonderful ability to fight the influenza virus.
Sorry, did I say that the study looked at elderberries fighting influenza? I meant to say it looked at concentrated elderberry extract, poured on top of cells in a petri dish in a lab.
Not exactly the kind of evidence you base your healthcare decisions on.
And, as with all the other examples on this list, the elderberry research was funded by the industry, in this case Pharmacare, a company that produces elderberry supplements.
2. Nuts And Semen Quality
Probably my favorite example on this list is a recent storm of media attention on a study that supposedly showed that men’s sexual health was dramatically improved by eating a handful of nuts every day.
As with most of the examples of this list, the research didn’t match up to the headlines at all. The study was actually a small randomized controlled trial that found virtually no differences between men supplementing their diet with nuts every day and those who weren’t. There were two statistically significant differences, but they were absolutely tiny in practical terms.
And, best of all, the study was funded by the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council, which means that — and I can’t believe I get to say this — a study on semen and sex quality in men was funded by Big Nut.
1. Blueberries And Most Things
Blueberries are probably the best food on this list, because they are in the news so much that it’s hard to pick a specific example. Maybe the time that they hit headlines because some scientists wrote another narrative review singing the praises of the blueberry. Maybe the other example from only a couple of months later where a study found that blueberries might help people with metabolic syndrome.
Now, we can only speculate about why blueberries need so much good press — maybe it’s the massive price-tag — but the fact remains that there is a news story at least once every few months promoting their amazing abilities across the world.
Either blueberries are a miracle food, or something fishy is going on.
The funny thing is, most of the studies on blueberries appear to be industry-funded. There’s the Wild Blueberry Association of North America, who fund studies showing that frozen/dried blueberries are amazing for your health. There’s the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, who fund research to “maintain the Blueberry Health Halo and make these little blue dynamos consumers’ top fruit” with the aim of “establish[ing] these little blue dynamos as a crucial part of a balanced diet, ultimately increasing consumption”.
Are blueberries good for your health? It’s hard to find an unbiased opinion.
The reality is that science will always need industry funding. There are some questions — like whether pasta can improve mouse endothelial cells — that we probably will never fund any other way. And as I’ve said many times, industry-funded trials tend to be better run than non-industry trials.
Industry funding isn’t evil. It doesn’t make science somehow tainted.
The problem is not so much whether scientists are doing bad research — they’re not — but whether the funding influences how the studies are written and reported on.
And when it comes to how the science is published and reported on, industry funding makes a huge difference.
Industry funding makes studies much more likely to be positive, because negative findings are buried or rewritten to seem positive. There’s even scientific evidence that this is the case. It’s not that the studies are bad, it’s that the people holding the purse strings often determine whether science gets published or hidden in a desk drawer.
If the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council wants to fund research, fine, but it should be right up there in the headlines when you’re reading about how much almonds are going to improve your orgasms. Nuts are great in many ways, but it’s very unlikely that they are an effective sexual aid.
Next time you read a news story about a specific food, it’s worth thinking “who might benefit from these results?”.
There’s a good chance that profit is behind the hype.
You can now listen to Gid on the Sensationalist Science podcast for your weekly dose of scientific shenanigans and media muddling: