Most Dietary Guideline Advisors Have Ties to Food and Pharma Industries

Key Takeaways

  • The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are updated every five years with input from an advisory committee. A new report found that 95% of the committee members had conflicts of interest with food and/or pharmaceutical companies.
  • Conflict of interest information was not readily available on the Dietary Guidelines.
  • USDA and HHS promised more transparency during the creation of the 2020-2025 guidelines.

Almost every member of the advisory committee for the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans had conflicts of interest with major food or pharmaceutical companies, according to a new study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

Kellogg’s, Kraft, and General Mills were among the corporations connected to multiple committee members.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are responsible for updating the Dietary Guidelines every five years.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, consisting of experts in nutrition and medicine, is compiled to review the latest studies and suggest updates to the federal guidelines. These guidelines heavily influence the eating patterns of Americans and are used by policymakers and public health officials to create federal nutrition programs.

For the 2020-2025 committee, however, 19 out of 20 members had conflicts of interest, according to the new study.

“It wasn’t surprising,” Mélissa Mialon, PhD, a coauthor of the study and a research assistant professor at Trinity Business School, told Verywell. “It’s quite usual to have people and experts working in nutrition having those types of ties to industry. But we didn’t expect 19 out of 20 members to have conflicts of interest.”

Paulo Serôdio, PhD, a coauthor of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Barcelona, also emphasized that health experts are often tied to food and pharmaceutical companies.

“Because these scientists are the best in their field, they are the same ones that are being tapped by the industry,” Serôdio said.

Having a conflict of interest doesn’t necessarily mean that committee members were influenced by corporations when they were reviewing the Dietary Guidelines, according to Serôdio and Mialon. The researchers didn’t investigate if these relationships have led to biased decisions, but they focused on making the conflicts of interest visible.

The USDA and HHS released a statement in 2018 outlining their plan to make the dietary guideline development process more transparent. But the information about conflicts of interest was not readily available in the latest guidelines.

Conflicts of Interest

The researchers failed to find the information about conflicts of interest on the Dietary Guidelines website.

“We may have missed them because they might have been published at some point and then removed from the website,” Mialon said. “But at the time we did our study​, nothing was available.”

Without this information from the USDA or HHS, the researchers used publicly available information from the committee members’ websites and research databases to track conflicts of interest.

The Pregnancy and Lactation Subcommittee, for example, had four out of six members involved with breastmilk substitute manufacturers such as Mead Johnson, Wyeth, and Abbott. Evidence has suggested that these companies routinely try to influence policy to promote the sales of their products, the researchers wrote.

Most of the committee members had received funding from both the private and public sectors, which means that they may not be exclusively working with corporations.

Serôdio said that finding and reporting this information was not challenging and that the research team was not necessarily trying to be critical of the existence of these conflicts of interest.

“We need to have access to the information, first and foremost, before we can talk about what are the effects of conflict of interest on the final output, we need to know they exist,” he said.

Can You Trust the Dietary Guidelines?

Conflicts of interest exist throughout the community of nutrition science.

“What our findings tell us is that our top experts in nutrition are so close to the industry,” Mialon said, adding that the findings lead to questions about the representation of nutrition science in general.

A 2020 report from The Counter outlined multiple instances of conflicts of interest in nutrition research. It referenced a study on the effectiveness of cranberry juice at preventing urinary tract infections that was partially funded by Ocean Spray, an agricultural cooperative of growers of cranberries and grapefruit.

That is just the tip of the iceberg. Another study comparing articles from top nutrition journals found that 13.4% were involved with the food industry, according to The Counter. The study also found that over half of the articles that had industry ties reported findings favorable to relevant food industry interests, compared to 9.7% of articles without food industry involvement.

Mialon and Serôdio reiterated that their findings do not mean that the Dietary Guidelines should not be trusted. But they believe the information about conflicts of interest needs to be made apparent so the public can engage in a discussion about what the prevalence of food industry actors means when it comes to interpreting nutrition research.

What This Means For You

Many academics and researchers depend on funding to conduct their studies. They don’t always collaborate with industry actors with ill intentions. However, this can lead to “funding bias.” When you’re reading a scientific journal, look for declarations of conflicts of interest in the fine print. But keep in mind, these don’t always tell the full story.