Here at DiabetesSelfManagement.com, and more specifically here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we often report the results of studies published in scientific and medical journals. What we almost never report — and what very few news organizations report — are the sources of funding for the studies we mention. Scientific studies often receive funding from a variety of sources, including government agencies, educational institutions, and for-profit corporations. As we noted several years ago in a blog post, it’s that last category that tends to make the greatest number of people uncomfortable. Can you trust research that’s funded by an organization devoted to making money?
The latest uproar about bias due to corporate funding concerns a nonprofit group that started up last year, called the Global Energy Balance Network. As mentioned in the Well blog of The New York Times, the group consists of scientists who want to spread the message that to maintain a healthy weight, people should get more physical activity — and possibly increase their caloric intake — rather than just cut back on unhealthy foods or excess calories. The group was founded by Steven N. Blair, an exercise scientist at the University of South Carolina, and Gregory A. Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health.
But some people think a third co-founder should be recognized: Coca-Cola, which supplied $1.5 million to get the group started. It’s unclear how much of this money went directly to the scientists involved, and how much covered other expenses. The company has also given almost $4 million since 2008 to support various projects undertaken by the two cofounders of the new group.
Coca-Cola, the world’s largest beverage manufacturer, has long supported efforts to promote physical activity as a means to achieving a healthy weight — one of which we covered in a previous post. Both Coca Cola and its critics would probably agree that the company makes these efforts to convince people they can enjoy sugary beverages as part of a healthy, active lifestyle, without gaining weight. Critics maintain, however, that the science doesn’t support this position. According to the Times article, most health experts believe that what we eat and drink has a much larger impact on body weight than how much we exercise.
For reasons that remain unclear, it appears that the source of funding for a study can, in many cases, help predict its outcome. A 2013 study published in the journal PLOS Medicine examined 18 previous studies on the relationship between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain or obesity. Out of the 12 studies that received no beverage industry funding, 10 concluded that sugar-sweetened beverages posed a risk for weight gain. Out of the 6 studies that received some funding from the beverage industry, 5 concluded that no significant link could be found between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain. This translates to beverage-industry-funded studies being five times as likely to find no effect on body weight from sugary beverages.
What’s your view on studies, or groups, funded by the beverage industry — do you think scientists can remain unbiased in such situations? Do you automatically reject the conclusions of any such group or study? Are some industry-funded studies — clinical trials of drugs, perhaps, which are largely funded by drug manufacturers — more trustworthy than others? Should certain other sources of research funding, such as government grants and private foundations, be given the same scrutiny that corporate funding often receives? Do you have an opinion on sugary beverages and weight control? Leave a comment below!