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Illustration by Diego Sabogal

Research is the collection of information and facts through the investigation or examination of a topic of interest.

New research into nutrition and dietetics plays a vital role in deepening our understanding of health, disease prevention, and disease management.

For instance, nutrition and dietary patterns have links to the development of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, especially among the older population.

Data obtained from nutrition research provide scientific evidence that informs public policymaking and health recommendations, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

However, a predominance of lab-based and animal studies and few research studies examining human dietary patterns highlight the gaps in nutrition research.

More funded human research is necessary to deepen scientific understanding of, and evidence for, the role of food and dietary supplements in health outcomes, dosages, and intervention periods.

Varying types of nutrition research provide different outcomes, leading to a range of scientific conclusions.

Observational studies, such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), observe the effect of food and lifestyle habits on health outcomes.

These observational studies — namely cohort and case-control studies — can only highlight associations between foods and health outcomes and cannot definitively determine the cause of the health outcome.

For example, excessive sugar intake has associations with overweight and adverse health conditions, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, and inflammatory diseases.

Experimental studies, however, implement specific nutrition interventions that enable scientists to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between foods and health outcomes.

For instance, researchers have shown that increased intake of dietary fiber can improve glycemic control by reducing blood sugar levels. This type of study allows for definitive answers.

Despite nutrition’s vital role in public health, research into the topic continues to be an underfunded and controversial area.

Industry funding

Nutrition is one of the few disciplines with direct links to product marketing.

In fact, a 2016 review of almost 200 published studies revealed that the funding source was directly related to the study’s conclusions.

This meant that industry-funded studies did not show unfavorable outcomes. However, roughly 40% of non-industry-funded studies did highlight unfavorable product outcomes.

Funding agencies each have focus areas that dictate which research projects are eligible for their financial support. Some companies even fund studies to build a pool of scientific evidence that doubles as a marketing strategy.

While some companies have responsibly engaged in research, others might influence research agendas that may forsake public health and persuade policymaking for their commercial benefits.

This is exemplified through the funding of smaller research groups and think tanks that conduct research without an overt connection to the parent company, and is a conflict of interest, such as in this 2018 article, which declares the authors’ competing interests.”

Ethical considerations and funding

The successful execution of a research study often relies on external funding, such as grants and sponsorships.

Though conducting smaller scientific studies without external funding is possible, high-quality and reliable nutrition research often requires larger, well-designed, and well-funded studies.

Although public funding from organizations, such as the National Institute of Health (NIH), is available, private industries and companies fund many nutrition research projects. This can raise ethical concerns about lobbying, bias, nondisclosure, and truthful reporting.

Reliance on private funding can occur because of limited public funding for nutrition research. A 2021 review revealed that only two of the 12 listed funding agencies specifically highlighted nutrition as an area of interest.

This means that regulating the funding of nutrition research and full disclosure reporting is a delicate balancing act and not as simple as discontinuing funding from private sources.

Stopping private funding would not only diminish research of important areas of nutrition but might also lead to the loss of the expertise of advisory groups.

In 2009, the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) and the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) North America united to debate the integrity of food science research. In 2016 the Canadian Nutrition Society joined forces to discuss scientific rigor to guard the credibility of nutrition research in light of research bias.

They discussed the eight principles proposed by the ILSI in 2009 that address conflict of interest guidelines for nutrition research. Key highlights include:

  • Objective research: sponsored research must be transparent, follow defined principles of scientific inquiry, and must not favor a particular outcome.
  • Control of research: the design and results of the study must remain with the scientific investigators and not held privately by the funding agency
  • Payment for outcome: no participants in the study should offer or accept payments to favor the research outcome.
  • Full disclosure: all those involved in the study must declare financial interests, paid authorship, and affiliations.

In an ideal setting, nutrition research should inform public policy and as merit for passing bills in government, such as the Gluten in Medicine Disclosure Act of 2021 in the U.S.

However, the threat of politics means that congressional intercession can disregard even the most scientifically sound nutrition research.

A well-known instance of this occurred when Senator William Proxmire introduced the Vitamin Bill in the mid-1970s despite appeals from many health-based organizations, including the National Nutrition Consortium, American Dietetic Association, and the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association.

This bill prevented the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from regulating the potency and number of ingredients in vitamin supplements.

The FDA, however, can regulate market claims made by supplement products.

Nutrition research is one of the few scientific disciplines linked to product marketing and is prone to lobbying and nondisclosure conflicts of interest.

It is also a relatively underserved and underfunded science, with many private sponsors and grants directed at topics with commercial benefits to the funding agency.

Despite these ethical challenges, there is a need for greater research funding into human nutrition and dietary patterns.

A delicate balance exists between regulating private sources of funds with transparent and factual research. However, the ASN and other regulating bodies have developed principles to protect the scientific rigor and credibility of nutrition research.