Maira Bes-Rastrollo and colleagues examine whether financial conflicts of interest are likely to bias conclusions from systematic reviews that investigate the relationship between sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain or obesity.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Industry sponsors' financial interests might bias the conclusions of scientific research. We examined whether financial industry funding or the disclosure of potential conflicts of interest influenced the results of published systematic reviews (SRs) conducted in the field of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and weight gain or obesity.
Methods and Findings
We conducted a search of the PubMed, Cochrane Library, and Scopus databases to identify published SRs from the inception of the databases to August 31, 2013, on the association between SSB consumption and weight gain or obesity. SR conclusions were independently classified by two researchers into two groups: those that found a positive association and those that did not. These two reviewers were blinded with respect to the stated source of funding and the disclosure of conflicts of interest.
We identified 17 SRs (with 18 conclusions). In six of the SRs a financial conflict of interest with some food industry was disclosed. Among those reviews without any reported conflict of interest, 83.3% of the conclusions (10/12) were that SSB consumption could be a potential risk factor for weight gain. In contrast, the same percentage of conclusions, 83.3% (5/6), of those SRs disclosing some financial conflict of interest with the food industry were that the scientific evidence was insufficient to support a positive association between SSB consumption and weight gain or obesity. Those reviews with conflicts of interest were five times more likely to present a conclusion of no positive association than those without them (relative risk: 5.0, 95% CI: 1.3–19.3).
An important limitation of this study is the impossibility of ruling out the existence of publication bias among those studies not declaring any conflict of interest. However, the best large randomized trials also support a direct association between SSB consumption and weight gain or obesity.
Financial conflicts of interest may bias conclusions from SRs on SSB consumption and weight gain or obesity.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
In our daily lives, we frequently rely on the results of scientific research to make decisions about our health. If we are healthy, we may seek out scientific advice about how much exercise to do to reduce our risk of a heart attack, and we may follow dietary advice issued by public health bodies to help us maintain a healthy weight. If we are ill, we expect our treatment to be based on the results of clinical trials and other studies. We assume that the scientific research that underlies our decisions about health-related issues is unbiased and accurate. However, there is increasing evidence that the conclusions of industry-sponsored scientific research are sometimes biased. So, for example, reports of drug trials sponsored by pharmaceutical companies sometimes emphasize the positive results of trials and “hide” unwanted side effects deep within the report or omit them altogether.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although the effects of company sponsors on the conclusions of pharmaceutical research have been extensively examined, little is known about the effects of industry sponsorship on nutrition research, even though large commercial entities are increasingly involved in global food and drink production. It is important to know whether the scientific evidence about nutrition is free of bias because biased information might negatively affect the health of entire populations. Moreover, scientific evidence from nutrition research underlies the formulation of governmental dietary guidelines and food-related public health interventions. In this systematic review, the researchers investigate whether the disclosure of potential financial conflicts of interest (for example, research funding by a beverage company) has influenced the results of systematic reviews undertaken to examine the association between the consumption of highly lucrative sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and weight gain or obesity. Systematic reviews identify all the research on a given topic using predefined criteria. In an ideal world, systematic reviews provide access to all the available evidence on specific exposure–disease associations, but publication bias related to authors' conflicts of interest may affect the reliability of the conclusions of such studies.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 18 conclusions from 17 systematic reviews that had investigated the association between SSB consumption and weight gain or obesity. In six of these reviews, a financial conflict of interest with a food industry was disclosed. Among the reviews that reported having no conflict of interest, 83.3% of the conclusions were that SSB consumption could be a potential risk factor for weight gain. By contrast, the same percentage of reviews in which a potential financial conflict of interest was disclosed concluded that the scientific evidence was insufficient to support a positive association between SSB consumption and weight gain, or reported contradictory results and did not state any definitive conclusion about the association between SSB consumption and weight gain. Reviews in which a potential conflict of interest was disclosed were five times more likely to present a conclusion of no positive association between SSB consumption and weight gain than reviews that reported having no financial conflict of interest.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that systematic reviews that reported financial conflicts of interest or sponsorship from food or drink companies were more likely to reach a conclusion of no positive association between SSB consumption and weight gain than reviews that reported having no conflicts of interest. A major limitation of this study is that it cannot assess which interpretation of the available evidence is truly accurate. For example, the scientists involved in the systematic reviews that reported having no conflict of interest may have had preexisting prejudices that affected their interpretation of their findings. However, the interests of the food industry (increased sales of their products) are very different from those of most researchers (the honest pursuit of knowledge), and recent randomized trials support a positive association between SSB consumption and overweight/obesity. Thus, these findings draw attention to possible inaccuracies in scientific evidence from research funded by the food and drink industry. They do not imply that industry sponsorship of nutrition research should be avoided entirely. Rather, as in other research areas, clear guidelines and principles (for example, sponsors should sign contracts that state that they will not be involved in the interpretation of results) need to be established to avoid dangerous conflicts of interest.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001578.
The Research Ethics Program at the University of California, San Diego provides an overview of conflicts of interest for researchers and details of US regulations and guidelines
The PLOS Medicine series on Big Food examines the activities and influence of the food industry in global health
A PLOS Medicine
Research Article by Basu et al. uses mathematical modeling to investigate whether SSB taxation would avert obesity and diabetes in India
A 2012 policy brief from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity discusses current evidence regarding SSB taxes
The US National Institutes of Health has regulations on financial conflicts of interest for institutions applying to receive funding
Wikipedia has pages on conflict of interest, reporting bias, systematic review, and SSBs (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)