Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Chocolate-Funded Researchers Fudging the Data?

Unfortunately, corporations seem to have perfected the art of corrupting academic research to help up their street cred and push their products. It's fairly simple to do if you have a decent sized budget and can be accomplished in three easy steps:
  1. Throw lots of soft money into funding research chairs, grants, conferences, lectures, consultancies, etc. for cash-strapped scientists at public institutions to investigate your product. Remember, "industry-funded research is 4 to 8 times more likely than independently funded research to result in findings favorable to the sponsor".
  2. See what they produce and reward those who put out positive results with continued funding, while cutting support when you get results that don't help you sell products. It's survival of the fittest - but don't worry, the theory of evolution is public domain and can be freely exploited without necessitating royalty payments to the descendants of Charles Darwin.
  3. After a few cycles of this "directed evolution of truth" the data should more or less be saying what you want. Polish things off by having your scientific pawns publish drastically over-hyped and over-stated interpretations of their data in a peer-reviewed journal, the higher the impact factor the better. Boisterously announce the publication of these findings with an even more over-hyped press release to major media outlets. Don't forget to to reward your peons with an all-expenses paid trip or at least a nice dinner party. Or maybe a chocolate bar.
I think the big pharmas were probably one of the first to use this method to beef up the street cred of their drugs, and more recently other industries like the winemakers have been getting into the action. Sure...a glass of red wine a day is the key to longevity because it contains flavonoids. Then again, if you're really after health, you could always skip out on the toxic alcohol content and just eat a grape or drink some juice.

Anyway, now it's chocolate-funded research, and things are just getting so ridiculous it's funny. This great article by blogger Mark Klempner describes how the Mars bar company is manipulating academia to demonstrate the supposed benefits of the "flavanols" in their products, while of course ignoring the massive negative effects of the sugars and fats they contain. I mean come on, we're talking about JUNK FOOD here. I would be embarrassed to be associated with a would-be serious academic institution such as the University of California at Davis, who support a Mars bar endowed chair in nutrition and have allowed their researchers to recieve at total of $10 million in research funding from the chocolate bar maker. Maybe they should be calling themselves something like "Department of Junk Food and Obesity Promotion, University of Mars Bar at Davis" instead. These guys even have a paper in PNAS that is commonly cited on chocolate industry propaganda websites. On these sites you can find quotes from people at the center of this conflict of interest, like Harold Schmitz, Mars Chief Scientific Officer and UC Davis visiting professor in nutrition: "Traditional cocoa processing often destroys the flavanols, but Mars technology helps to retain these naturally occurring nutrients from cocoa. This new research emphasizes the importance of understanding the potential public health applications of emerging cocoa science, which is a challenge we take very seriously at Mars." Priceless.

The saddest part is that it's usually not obvious, when you read a paper like this, see a poster or hear a talk, that the research has been funded for corporate gain. Instead you're just left wondering why you've wasted your time listening to a bunch of meaningless, over-stated, irrelevent and massaged data disguised to look like science.

Great piece though, and I think he's bang on. The Brave New World reference is interesting although disconcerting. (Naturally, Klempner manages to tie global waming into his article as well).


Anonymous said...

lol, "Department of Junk Food and Obesity Promotion, University of Mars Bar at Davis"

Anonymous said...

"The resveratrol content of wine is related to the length of time the grape skins are present during the fermentation process. Thus the concentration is significantly higher in red wine than in white wine, because the skins are removed earlier during white-wine production, lessening the amount that is extracted [3]. Grape juice, which is not a fermented beverage, is not a significant source of resveratrol. A fluid ounce of red wine averages 160 µg of resveratrol, compared to peanuts, which average 73 µg per ounce [6]. Since wine is the most notable dietary source, it is the object of much speculation and research"

from quackwatch

Anonymous Coward said...

However, the claims being made for resveratrol are unjustified. There is no evidence that it would provide these benefits as part of a normal diet — even for wine drinkers. It is not a simple matter to extrapolate the results of yeast studies to human health, especially when the studies on yeast used much higher concentrations of resveratrol than are available from wine drinking. Levels of resveratrol in wine are generally less than 5 mg per l, and it is heavily metabolized during the absorption process, resulting in extremely low plasma concentrations (D. M. Goldberg et al. Clin. Biochem. 36, 79–87; 2003).

kamel said...

Grape juice may not be a significant source of resveratrol, but there are other health benefits from wine/grape products. Grape juice is high in other antioxidants, while the alcohol in wine has been shown to raise 'good' cholesterol. (There's an article at CNN that talks about the relative benefits of grape juice vs. wine)

As for resveratrol, it has been shown to have life-span extension (and other useful) properties, not just in yeast but in mammals as well, independent of diet, though as AC pointed out above, the doses used are probably greater than those biologically available from a glass of wine.

Bayman said...

A recent paper just out showing the anti-tumor effects of flavonoid extacts from cranberry juice, showing that beneficial effects are not just limited to compounds from red wine. However the above mentioned criticism also applies as these were concentrated extracts containing much greater quantities of flavonoids than your standard glass of juice.

Anonymous said...

Ok so here I am studying metabolism, and I come across a paper which we briefly discussed in class... so basically they found resveratrol to improve mitrochondrial function and protect against metabolic diseases... however in order achieve the required dose to get these results in humans, apparently 50 bottles of red wine need to be consumed per day :D
(not a problem, right kamel?)