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Do big food companies have too much sway over nutrition research?

In recent years researchers have been drawing attention to potential conflicts of interest between nutrition organizations and the food they study and advise people about.

In 2013, Bay Area public health lawyer Michele Simon detailed funded partnerships between big food companies and the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association), which represents tens of thousands of dietitians across the country.

This week, Simon released a new report on the American Society for Nutrition, which represents thousands of American nutrition researchers. The ASN also publishes some of the most important nutrition research journals in the nation.

Simon told WBEZ’s Morning Shift that she finds it troubling that companies, including Coca Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Monsanto and sugar manufacturers have financed “sustaining partnerships” with the Society. She worries that this may influence which research is published and which isn’t.

“These companies want to have direct influence on science by funding what gets published so that the results are friendly to their bottom line,” she said. “But what we don’t get to see is the studies that don’t get published. So when we have science that may go against the interest of these companies and that’s not even able to get published, that can have a real chilling effect on the research in general.”

According to Simon’s report, published on her website,

  • More than 15 percent of the scientific sessions at ASN’s annual meeting were sponsored by PepsiCo;
  • A speaker in a sponsored session on low-calorie sweeteners included a consultant for aspartame maker, Ajinomoto.
  • ASN has published an 18-page defense of processed food that states, “There are no differences between the processing of foods at home or at a factory.”
  • For $35,000, food companies can purchase a hospitality suite where their executives can socialize with nutrition researchers.

Simon concludes her report by asking the ASN to reconsider taking money from what she refers to as “junk food” companies.

WBEZ contacted the American Society for Nutrition,  but it did not make anyone available to comment on Simon’s report.

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