Publication Suppression: Buried Science Affects Healthy Lifestyles

Written by on October 4th 2016.

I find that no matter where I look, healthy eating is constantly thrown at me. I can’t spend two minutes on Facebook without the Paleo diet being lauded followed by how to make the perfect S’more.

Despite the warnings from diet blogs, no matter what I looked up the warnings were always fairly vague. Read your nutrition labels, stay away from burgers. Stay away from French fries. Ice cream. Soda. Stay away from high calorie salad. From granola bars. Eat high fiber cardboard. There never seemed to be a perfect food or solution to high fat, high sugar foods.

Today I do not provide that solution.

Part of my problem finding answers comes from the way research is completed. Many times the businesses that fund research on the health effects of products are also the businesses that own and distribute the product being researched. For example- tobacco. Tobacco companies chose which research to fund, in return they owned the right to publish the findings. This led to publication suppression. Publication suppression allows companies to publish only the research that had outcomes and conclusions that supported the company product. For tobacco, the repercussions of publication suppression, combined with other insidious business tactics, led to a $206 billion master settlement with 46 states.[1] Since the 1970s smoking has been on a decline, accompanied with federally mandated warning labels and public smoking bans.

Unfortunately, even though it is acknowledged that publication suppression is one of the major aspects of prolonged life for tobacco companies, many researchers rely of businesses to fund their research.  One of the foods that falls prey to this is sugar. Research into the effects of sugar has often been funded by large companies that rely on sugar:  Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and others.[2] At this point, food research is owned by the foods that it researches. Food research is nowhere near as studied as tobacco was by the fall of the tobacco industry; so it follows that some scientific studies report no links between sugar and obesity, some studies do, and some find other ingredients at fault (trans fat and red #3, among others).

It is not necessarily the researchers’ fault that they rely on funding from large companies. However, when the ability to publish research is put into the hands of companies, marketing is often put in the place of best interest.

Still.

Not every researcher is paid for by business. University, unrelated private and federally funded research are often given the chance to publish their findings, no matter what the results. When a project does not find statistically significant data, it is a ‘null result’ study. Null results are not as interesting to the researcher because they cannot confirm any positive or negative relationship within their data.[3] To researchers and research publication editors, it may feel that null results are not interesting, or the lack of conclusive results makes the research seem worthless.

This doubt has cost the public findings from hundreds of research projects. It could be that replication of the study could yield new results or the repetition of null findings could be found to be statistically significant—that there could be no relationship between the items studied.

So, how bad is sugar for you? Maybe worse than you think, if the sugar industry is funding the research. Should you choose the paleo diet? That’s a personal choice. I say be aware that some of the most important research has not been published. Publication suppression occurs at many levels, and it’s important to realize that we may not have access to research that could change our minds.

 

[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/06/19/tobacco.decline/

[2] http://www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.h231

[3] http://www.bioone.org.ezproxy.beloit.edu/doi/pdf/10.1667/RR3573.1

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