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Deep Scientific Thoughts on Nutrition and Obesity -- Courtesy of Pepsi and Kraft

The wrap-up newsletter for the American Society for Nutrition's (ASN) recent three-day clinical nutrition conference contains all the sorts of serious, deeply scientific health highlights you'd expect -- info about vitamin D and chronic disease, the role of dietary fats in heart disease and whether all calories are equal. Except for this: a section listing the ASN's "industry sponsors" -- Pepsi (PEP), Kraft (KFT), the soybean processor Solae, the Corn Refiners Association and California Almonds.

It's another example of the questionable practice of otherwise credible scientific groups deciding to take money from major food companies or interest groups. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) started a "corporate membership program" in 2009 with a six figure windfall from Coke (KO), and last fall the American Dietetic Association (ADA), long the poster child for corporate handouts, joined forces with Hershey for a campaign to educate Americans about moderation and healthy eating.

The ASN, which has 3,800 scientists as members, isn't actually new to the corporate sponsorship game, but its alliances with food companies haven't been as visible. The association's web site provides a tally of its "sustaining members," a list that's more notable for who it doesn't include. The companies providing "generous support" are too numerous to list, but include McDonald's, Coke, Kellogg, General Mills, ConAgra, Monsanto, the Sugar Association, the National Dairy Council and Pfizer.

Perhaps it wouldn't be as bad if the ASN conference newsletter simply highlighted the companies that helped pay for the three days worth of meetings and presentations. But instead they appear undecided about whether the publication is supposed to be a useful round-up or a giant ad for the makers of high fructose corn syrup. The Corn Refiners Association has two banners on the front page and two full pages of various graphs, charts and other info.

Suzanne Price, spokesperson for the ASN, says that "sponsors are never given the opportunity to provide input on the selection of speakers are program content."

I don't doubt that's the case. But the thing that scientific groups seem not to grasp is that the alliances they make with food companies do them more harm than good.

As a result of its coziness with the industry, the ADA holds very little credibility in food policy circles. In its alliance with Coke, the AAFP is providing "educational material to teach consumers about the role beverages and sweeteners can play in a healthy, active lifestyle." Really? Not surprisingly, major backlash has ensued, including the resignation of numerous doctors. Here's a photo several of these annoyed doctors posted on their site:

The ASN, too, has been on the receiving end of criticism. It was lambasted for its role in administering the now defunct, widely lampooned, industry-sponsored Smart Choices labeling program, which famously declared Froot Loops and Apple Jacks a nutritious breakfast.

The broader question is whether taking money from food companies distorts the pursuit of rigorous science that will help us come up with solutions to obesity and other health problems, and whether industry funding muzzles the sort of critical thinking we might need from groups like the ASN.

We know that direct industry support of nutrition research can create a bias that leads to favorable outcomes for food companies. Although it's never as obvious as a researcher setting out to please his or her funders. Somehow, the bias is always a lot more subtle.

Image by Flickr user US Army Korea IMCOM

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