Childhood Obesity Conflicts of Interest

Childhood Obesity Science Conflicts of Interest

If a tobacco company were to fund an anti-smoking scientific journal, most people would point out the glaring conflict of interest. Yet, a new peer-reviewed, scientific journal, Childhood Obesity (Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.), was launched in September 2010 with a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Kellogg Foundation’s trust assets include $4.1 billon of Kellogg Company common stock (out of $6.4 billion total assets). That’s not independence.

In effect, a major food company is funding a childhood obesity scientific journal. Will childhood obesity researchers and professionals thus tend to look more kindly at the Kellogg Company and its food products? Kellogg’s products include sugary kids’ cereals, such as Fruit Loops, Honey Smacks, and Cocoa Puffs, and pastries such as Pop Tarts. Kellogg’s Pop Tarts are marketed as entertainment for kids with the slogan, “Made for Fun.”

Furthermore, the Vice President for Programs of the Kellogg Foundation, Gail C. Christopher, DN, is on Childhood Obesity’s editorial board. Dr. Christopher is a naturopath and wrote the “Welcome” article in the inaugural issue of the journal. Why would a naturopath, much less a vice president of a food giant’s foundation, be selected for the editorial board of a medical childhood obesity journal? Might the Kellogg Company wish to influence the journal’s choice of articles?

Emerging new evidence indicates that sugar may be addicting and thus a possible cause of the childhood obesity epidemic. Exposure to sugary kids’ cereals might induce sugar addiction in children. The Kellogg Company may not want articles on food addiction to appear in Childhood Obesity. By way of disclosure, my article, entitled “Food Addiction in Children,” was rejected by Childhood Obesity but was accepted by the journal, Eating Disorders. Researchers at Yale University recently remarked (PDF) on the effect of food-addiction evidence on the food industry:

But for such a sensitive issue, and one with potentially important legal implications, one can imagine how threatening even the implication of addiction would be to the [food] industry, as it was with tobacco.

The Kellogg Foundation also has provided funding in 2010 for HealthCorps, with the stated purpose:

[…To] prevent childhood obesity by encouraging students to take personal responsibility for their health and wellness.

“Personal responsibility” is the food industry’s typical solution for the obesity epidemic. The American Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, also known as the Cheeseburger Bill, sought to protect producers and retailers of foods — such as McDonald’s Corporation — from an increasing number of suits and class action suits by obese consumers. The Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2004, but did not receive a Senate vote. The Bill was reintroduced in 2005 by Florida Republican Congressman Ric Keller and re-passed by the House but still not by the Senate.

How much personal responsibility is a five-year-old able to exercise when he discovers a box of Fruit Loops or Pop Tarts in the pantry? If the Kellogg Foundation is to fund efforts to prevent childhood obesity, as well as childhood obesity research, shouldn’t the Foundation completely divest itself of all assets in the Kellogg Company food giant? Otherwise, a conflict of interest will continue to exist.

As noted in the “Medical Science and Food Addiction” post on our Childhood Obesity News blog, the high fructose corn syrup industry was a sponsor of the Obesity Society 2008 scientific meeting. At the Obesity Society 2010 scientific meeting, the word “addiction” was censored from presentation titles in the preliminary vs. final program.

Pepsico is funding obesity research at Yale, and The American Dietetic Association recently announced that it has inked a partnership with the Hershey Company. McDonald’s has a Global Advisory Council consisting of childhood obesity and nutrition professionals.

I talked with Dr. Tom Baranowski, an eminent childhood obesity researcher and one of the Council’s members, at a child obesity conference. He revealed that he has received money from McDonald’s for his Council services but would not reveal the amount. With all due respect to Dr. Baranowski and the other distinguished members of McDonald’s Global Advisory Council, if someone pays you money, it’s impossible to be objective.

Childhood Obesity Initiative Conflicts of Interest

The November 2010 issue of the journal Pediatrics included a special supplement about the Shaping America’s Youth (SAY) initiative to combat childhood obesity. SAY recently held town meetings all across the U.S. to promote healthy nutrition and physical activity in children, with the goal of eradicating the childhood obesity epidemic. The source of funding for these town meetings included Conagra Foods, QTC Group (a division of Pepsico), Cadbury Schweppes (a division of Kraft Foods), and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (Dr. Pepper, 7UP, Canada Dry, RC Cola). Food companies appear to be trying to divert attention away from evidence of food addiction by portraying childhood obesity as nutritional ignorance and a sedentary lifestyle problem.

McDonald’s was a supporter of the National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, as part of an esteemed group which included the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, the National League of Cities, and the YMCA. Does anyone really believe that McDonald’s will do what is necessary to combat the childhood obesity epidemic?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Premier Issue of New Childhood Obesity Journal Launched by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers,” Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. Publishers PR release, 09/07/10
Source: “Pop Tarts Dancer,” YouTube
Source: “Combined Statements of Financial Position With Supplemental Combining Information,” W.K. Kellogg Foundation Annual Report, 2009
Source: “Study Suggests Sugar May Be Addictive,” HealthDay, 12/10/10
Source: “The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?” (PDF), Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University, 2009
Source: “Should PepsiCo be Funding Obesity Research at Yale?” Fooducate blog, 04/07/10
Source: “Only in America: Candy Maker to Sponsor Our Dietary Advice [Thanks Hershey!],” Fooducate blog, 07/20/10
Source: “Making the Case!” (video), Healthier Kids, Brighter Futures, 09/10
Image: Cover of Childhood Obesity, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

Comments

  1. Not a new controversy. Pepsi underwrote the first fellowship in obesity at Yale. The question is where is the money going to come from to fund educational or academic efforts? Where do you draw the line? I do agree there’s an obvious conflict of interest here. It’s a shame there aren’t more financial sources to support such endeavors.

    • Dr. Plemmons, obesity research funding, as you note, is a travesty. Is it any different than accepting money from “booze” companies to conduct research on “drinking responsibly,” which diverts attention away from the addiction cause of alcoholism? We are selling the souls of our children in order to obtain funding for mostly useless obesity research, which makes funding food companies happy, namely genetics, metabolism, nutrition, physical activity, population studies, bariatric surgery, and obesity drugs. That’s all the Obesity Society’s scientific meeting consists of – nothing about food addiction. Sure, it’s hard to obtain funding for obesity research. This is true even with funding from the government, which is also in bed with the food companies via campaign contributions (look at the Congressional support for the American Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act). If we sought obesity research funding only from non-food-company sources, which may be paltry, at least we’d get SOME legitimate and useful results. Anyone interested in organizing a conference on the REAL cause of the childhood obesity epidemic and what we need to do about it?

  2. I am sympathetic to your point of view, however, I feel I need to know a little more. What is the relationship between Kellogg Co. and Kellogg Foundation? According to Source Watch, Kellogg Foundation has a separate board. Does Kellogg Co. influence what Kellogg Foundation does? I agree the stock held by the Kellogg Trust creates a conflict. Still, I wonder if Kellogg Foundation giving a grant is the same as Kellogg Co. giving a grant.

    Gail Christopher appears to be a “naprapath,” which I gather is not the same as a “naturopath.” They are both woo, just different flavors, I guess. http://www.americansall.com/PDFs/02-americans-all/pdf_GC.pdf

    • Robert A. Pretlow, MD says:

      You have a valid point, Marilyn. Nevertheless, the Kellogg Foundation’s trust owned 86,724,190 shares of Kellogg Company common stock in 2009, which paid the Foundation’s trust $124,015,591.70 in dividends. As noted in my post above, if someone pays you money, it’s impossible to be objective.

  3. Robert A. Pretlow, MD says:

    Michael Prager, former Boston Globe editor and author of Fat Boy, Thin Man, has further investigated this issue. He presents an interview with the editor of the journal, Childhood Obesity:
    http://www.michaelprager.com/childhood_obesity_childhoodobesitynews_pretlow_ludwig_wansink_brownell_liebert_heber
    and:
    http://www.michaelprager.com/Childhood_Obesity_journal_liebert_vicki_cohn_kellog_foundation

  4. Hank Herrera says:

    In my 25 years of association with the W.K.Kellogg Foundation, beginning with a Kellogg National Fellowship, I have heard Kellogg Foundation staff repeatedly state that there is no decision-making relationship with the W.K. Kellogg Company. Mr. Kellogg founded the Foundation in 1930 with a donation of stock and a mandate to support education, agriculture and health care, with an emphasis on vulnerable families and children. I also understand that people often confuse the Company with the Foundation. The Company and the Foundation have separate leadership and separate Boards. The Foundation is not a “ward” or client of the Company Never once have I heard Kellogg Foundation staff, people I have known for many years and trust, say anything implicitly or explicitly to suggest that the Company influenced Foundation decisions. As the former project manager for one of the nine Kellogg Foundation-funded food and fitness projects, I know that we had complete liberty to address the impact on vulnerable communities of lack of access to fresh, healthy, affordble food and safe, attractive spaces for physical activity and play. Over the years I have watched the Foundation fund incredible programs and projects to improve the lives of everyday people.

    I do not expect that my words will make anyone change his or her mind if they truly believe that the Company has any influence over the Foundation, or that the Foundation will defer to the Company because it receives the benefit of earnings from its stock portfolio. However I do want to register my experience of the Foundation for the record.

  5. Elyse Schneiderman,Ph.D says:

    I agree with Dr. Pretlow. Food should not be advertised as comforting. Food is not fun. If you consume sugary cereals as a child, you develop a taste for sugar and crave more. We need to rid outselves of the notion food is comforting. Thirty years ago Big Tobacco knew cigarettes were bad but preached how cigarettes relieved stress. Eating M and M’s are comforting, but does a kid feel better after he has eaten them, NO. Children need to be taught at an early age to chose the cereal without the sugar and avoid pop tarts. There are many more nutritional choices. Kellogs is great for their funding but they would do better to promote the healthier choices if they truly want to help .My family basically eats only cereals that they produce, (like the brand) but picks the ones without sugar except for Raisan Bran

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