As we’ve noted in the past here at Diabetes Flashpoints, whenever we — or most other news sources — report on a study, it’s unlikely that we’ll mention or even pay much attention to the source of funding for the study. After all, the source of funding really shouldn’t affect its outcome — all that should matter is how the study is designed and carried out. And in a perfect world, maybe that would be the case.
In the real world, though, studies are conducted by imperfect human beings, and how they go about designing and conducting studies may be influenced by a number of factors — in some cases, they may be completely unaware of this influence. And it’s this area of implicit, or subconscious, biases that concerns many people when it comes to corporate funding for studies. After all, the aim of corporations is more direct than the aims of governments and educational institutions sometimes are: They exist to make money for their shareholders. When a corporation finances a study, usually it would like to see the results turn out a certain way.
And as a recent review of studies on sugar-sweetened beverages shows, more often than not, beverage industry–funded studies produce results that are favorable to the industry — in stark contrast with the unfavorable results of most other studies. Published last month in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, the review looked at experimental studies (ones with participants who actively tried certain behaviors, rather than just filling out a survey) on sugar-sweetened beverages conducted between 2001 and 2016. Each study looked at the link between these beverages and the risk of developing either obesity or Type 2 diabetes.
After excluding studies funded by competitors of sugar-sweetened beverages — like the dairy and bottled water industries — the researchers were left with 60 different studies. As noted in a Reuters article on the review, out of these 60 studies, 26 failed to find a link between sugar-sweetened beverages and either diabetes or obesity. All of these 26 studies, it turns out, were funded by the beverage industry. The remaining 34 studies, in contrast, did find a link between sugar-sweetened beverages and either diabetes or obesity (or both). Only one of these studies was funded by the beverage industry.
Based on these results, the researchers concluded that the beverage industry was “manipulating contemporary scientific processes” to advance their business interests. In response, the American Beverage Association (ABA) noted that the lead researcher for the review is a paid expert for the City of San Francisco in a lawsuit filed by the ABA against the city. That lawsuit challenges a law requiring warning labels on sugar-sweetened beverages sold in the city. In its statement, the ABA defended its right to fund studies and said that its research “adheres to the highest standards of integrity for scientific inquiry.”
What’s your take on beverage industry–funded studies and the different results they seem to produce — do you think this difference could be just coincidental? Is it possible that both the beverage industry and other sources of funding for research have an agenda that introduces bias, or are some sources more likely to cause bias than others? Do you think it’s possible for researchers to be truly neutral in their approach to a study when they know where the study’s funding is coming from? Which studies do you trust? Leave a comment below!