From the editor's desk

Does bias against company-funded research really serve consumers?

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

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Related tags Research Curcumin

Companies that foster science in the dietary supplement industry can labor under the prejudices of those who say that any industry funding of a study must necessarily taint the results.

The assumption seems to be to be short sighted, and seems all too often to be a knee jerk reaction on the part of these critics.  You can’t both argue that the dietary supplement industry lacks adequate scientific support and at the same time reject more or less out of hand the studies the industry does try to carry forward just because of where the money comes from.

A case in point is a recent post by a food industry influencer that took issue with a recent article written by my colleague Stephen Daniells on a study conducted by Verdure Sciences on its Longvida curcumin ingredient.

The study reported on our site was criticized because it was maintained that when funders have a vested interest in the outcome of studies, biases tend to creep in; the fact that the NutraIngredients-LATAM report was based on an abstract; and the fact that the study was funded by a company was not mentioned.

First off, to the last point: The article did in fact neglect to mention the study was funded by Verdure, an omission on our part that subsequently corrected.

Focus on peer-reviewed research

At NutraIngredients-USA and our other websites, we adhere to a policy of only publicizing in a standalone article research that has been published in a peer-reviewed journal.  Given the wide variety of journals around these days, and a perhaps sliding scale of what ‘peer reviewed’ means in each case, that’s not necessarily a guarantee there won’t be problems with a study.  But it gets you a lot closer toward the goal of only basing your nutritional supplementation decisions on studies that make sense and whose data have not been jimmied in some way to get a positive result.

We do make an exception for preliminary results that have been accepted for presentation at scientific conferences.  Conferences organizers are under pressure to find new things to report to the attendees at their events, just as we are tasked with finding the latest news to report.  So our reasoning is that the scientific advisory committee of the conference has performed a similar role to what a peer review panel might have.  These conferences after all have a vested interest in making sure the research presented in those venues is not subsequently refuted.

And we try to be careful to make it obvious when the data comes from a human trial or one conducted in animals. Human data is far more valuable and relevant, of course, and is especially pertinent when it concerns a commercially available ingredient.

But animal studies can offer important insights regarding mechanism of action and add to the totality of evidence, and so should not be dismissed out of hand. And for obvious ethical reasons, animal studies form the backbone of toxicology research.

Investing in the science

As to the seeming blanket assertion that industry funding allows biases to creep in, as I see it, companies that do this kind of research are putting a significant amount of money on the line.  There are supplement ingredients in the marketplace that have millions of dollars invested in the evidence that backs their health effects.

When a company decides to make an investment like that, you can hardly call foul if they try to make sure they’ll get their money’s worth.  Building up a research suite is a journey, starting with bench scale tests, going through in vitro​ research at a pilot scale and finally culminating in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial in humans. 

If the results continue to hold promise at each stage, the effort goes forward.  So it’s no surprise to me that when a company gets to the clinical trial phase, it might have a good expectation of success. 

The trials that don’t pan out are not widely publicized. Who, after all, would want to trumpet from the mountaintops that our study failed, our ingredient will probably have to be taken off the market (because who will want it now?), and we’ve just blown a few million dollars? Those studies (and ingredients) just quietly die.

Where will future funding come from?

But if a company spends the money, does a quality study, and has success, then who loses?  Is it really in the consumers’ best interest to call these kinds of studies into question simply because of the funding mechanism?  In this era of ever diminishing public support for basic research, how will all of the studies the critics of the industry are calling for take place if not for companies willing to invest in making the best—and the best supported—products?

We here at NutraIngredients-USA will continue to do the best we can to shine a light on the highest quality research. I can’t claim we always get it right, and some studies may be reported in these pages that don’t deserve that recognition. But that’s our goal, and we won’t be dissuaded by a delicate distaste for who’s willing to put up the funding.

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