Big Soda’s Arsenal — Who Is the Enemy?

old sideshow sign: "shoot the freak, live human targets"

Last time, we left off with a quotation from spin doctor Jeff Nedelman, to the effect that “No one commissions research anticipating a negative response.” It would appear that when giant corporations pay for studies to show the harmlessness of their products, they expect agreeable results. It might be coincidence that so many industry-financed studies turn out as they do, or it may be a case of confirmation bias with deep pockets.

For Forbes.com, Larry Husten examined the role of beverage and food corporations in funding and publicizing obesity research. He was intrigued by a paper published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology that let sugar-sweetened beverages off the hook and blamed the obesity epidemic on insufficient exercise. Husten notes:

The article downplays the role of calories and diet and does not include the words “sugar,” “soda,” or “beverage.” Three of the five authors of the paper report financial relationships with Coca Cola…. It also seems clear that the perspective on this controversy as presented in this paper is remarkably congruent with the interests of Coca Cola.

Husten asked the paper’s lead author, Dr. Carl Lavie, for his take on it. His response:

[T]he research from my colleagues and I show that very marked declines in physical activity, which is also a major component in leading to fitness, is by far the major cause of obesity, not sugar and fast foods.

If Lavie’s science is as bad as his grammar, we’re all in trouble. Not surprisingly, this latest research conforms to the industry’s party line. We are rendered fat by our laziness and refusal to engage in sufficient physical activity, and it’s our own fault and has nothing to do with sugar-sweetened beverages. Just like Coca-Cola “had nothing to do with the details of the study, analyzing results, or publishing the paper.” No connection between soda and obesity; no connection between Coke’s financing of studies and the results. Nothing to see here — move on.

Terminology matters

Apparently, as long as a scientist’s compensation is called a “non-restricted educational grant,” then everything is cool. Replying to a series of questions, Dr. Lavie (which in French means “life”) opined that industry-funded research is fine, as long as the full-disclosure principle is followed. And apparently the danger of corruption is only present with a respectably hefty reward, for as Lavie says, “receiving a few minor honorarium would hardly taint my views.”

Husten mentions a paper with the intriguing title “Financial Conflicts of Interest and Reporting Bias Regarding the Association between Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews,” published by PLOS Medicine. He explains it thus:

For the papers in which the authors reported no conflict of interest, 10 out of the 12 findings supported the association between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain or obesity. In stark contrast, 5 out of the 6 papers with industry support failed to find evidence for any such association. In other words, systematic reviews with industry support were 5 times more likely to find no significant association.

Interestingly, one of Dr. Lavie’s quotations might be interpreted as a Freudian slip:

Regarding Coca Cola, although their “flagship” product is a sugary beverage, keep in mind that they have many more low or no calorie products in their comprehensive arsenal!!

An arsenal is a collection of military firepower, like rifles and cannons and bombs. If Coca-Cola’s numerous products represent its stock of combat-ready weapons… who is the enemy?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What Role Should Coca-Cola Play In Obesity Research?” Forbes.com, 04/27/14
Source: “Financial Conflicts of Interest and Reporting Bias Regarding the Association between Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews,” PLOSmedicine.org, 12/31/13
Image by Dan DeLuca

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