A candid conversation with nutritionist Mélissa Mialon about the food industry’s behind-the-scenes project to redefine lobbying, research ethics, and the practice of science.

8 minute read

After studying food engineering, Mélissa Mialon investigated nutrition for her PhD and now applies her industry background to spotlight food companies’ lobbying and political tactics to market foods that are sometimes harmful. A handful of years ago, she collaborated with experts on “Industry Insight” a toolkit to educate researchers, politicos, and reporters on the methods tobacco, alcohol, and gambling companies deploy against public health. 

In a new study published this month, Mialon dives into the political tactics of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a lobbying organization for food companies such as Coca-Cola, Mars candy, Nestlé, McDonald’s, ConAgra, and DuPont. 

Based on internal company documents, Mialon examined an ILSI program, started in 2007, to redefine conflicts of interest and corporate influence, and a subsequent ISLI strategy for creating standards for scientific integrity and ethical interactions between government and corporations. While ILSI’s rhetoric on scientific integrity and conflicts of interest appears academic and high-minded, the last several years have not been kind to the lobby group. 

In 2016, a United Nations panel chaired by Professor Alan Boobis ruled that glyphosate was probably not carcinogenic to humans. As reported by The Guardian, Boobis was also the vice-president of ILSI Europe, and documents found that ILSI had taken $500,000 from Monsanto and $528,000 from CropLife International, just a few years prior.

In 2018, Mars candy left ILSI, telling Reuters, “We do not want to be involved in advocacy-led studies that so often, and mostly for the right reasons, have been criticized.” The hits continued that next year as studies and media reports in 2019 identified ILSI as an industry lobby group that harmed public health.

A September 2020 study in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law exposed ILSI helping Coca-Cola shape obesity policy in China. Last January Coke finally severed ties with ILSI, an organization it helped found in 1978. Since that time, ILSI rebranded itself as the “Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences.”

Mialon started monitoring ILSI in 2013, when she started her PhD. Here is an edited and condensed version of our talk.

DICHRON: Since 2007, ILSI has been influencing science. They first started publishing papers on conflicts of interest. Then around 2014, 2015 they started putting together papers on scientific integrity. And then they began creating this framework for ethics on corporate partnerships with the government? 

MIALON: They also began slowly shifting from a focus just on nutrition, to science more broadly. 

DICHRON: They're defining what science is. 

MIALON: Absolutely. I had an intuition about this a couple of years ago. In Latin America, I was seeing them in 2019 participating in international scientific integrity conferences, but they work in nutrition and have a clear conflict of interest. 

I have colleagues working on conflicts of interest in nutrition, and they did a review of the literature that cited quite a lot of industry papers, including ILSI papers. But my colleagues did not recognize that ILSI papers were industry research, and they cited it as if it was independent science. 

We replied to their review to clarify that the literature that they were citing was from industry. 

DICHRON: So they did a review of conflicts of interest research using financially influenced research?

MIALON: [Laughs] Yes. Because it was ILSI. It's not like it was Coca-Cola who funded the studies they cited. Some of the studies that were obviously industry, they caught. But not the ILSI studies.

DICHRON: Can you explain what ILSI is? There have been stories about them pushing the agenda of junk food manufacturers and defending the pesticide glyphosate for Monsanto. 

MIALON: They also worked for the tobacco industry. They were founded in the 1970s by some of the largest food companies, including Coca-Cola. Industry created them, but ILSI presented itself as an independent organization, and they even had status at the World Health Organization.

The ILSA North America set up a new group last February and it’s the same thing—they receive most of their money from corporations which shape their agenda behind closed doors. But on their website, they say they are an independent organization that works with industry, governments, and academics. 

People don't know who they are because when they get invited to an ILSI conference, the invitation doesn’t come from Nestlé.


DICHRON: I love this. Their new name is not the “Trade Organization for Coca-Cola and Nabisco.” It's called the “Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences.” When you add the word “science” it’s no longer lobbying and political influence. It’s just facts and data.

MIALON: Absolutely. They just changed their name. For scientists, it’s very difficult to recognize that this is an industry group. And in nutrition, a lot of people receive money from the food industry so it seems like a normal nutrition institute.

I was talking to someone who was invited to present at a conference where ILSI paid for her flight, food, and accommodation. At the end of her presentation, she was thanked, as well as Coca-Cola who sponsored her talk. 

She didn’t understand that this is who paid for everything, and if she had known before, she wouldn’t have gone. It’s insidious. 

I heard from someone else invited to an ILSI conference, and she was attacked for her presentation on hydration. People get trapped into these conferences. During her talk, she said that water is sufficient. When you are thirsty, just drink. 

But the people who invited her wanted to hear you need multiple liters of water a day, or maybe other liquids, like soda. 

DICHRON:  ILSI is now called IAFNS and they have their own science journal called “Nutrition Reviews.” You found that it's among the top ten journals in the field of nutrition. 

MIALON: They are transparent. On the Web page of the journal, they say it’s ILSI. But again, many researchers don't know that they are submitting to a journal that is thoroughly supported by food companies. 

We found that around 25 per cent of the studies in this journal had some involvement with industry—funding or authorship. 

DICHRON: All of this starts off in 2007, with ILSI focusing on conflicts of interest or corporate influence. Why does ILSI care about conflicts of interests? 

MIALON: I think they were very clever. The discussion on obesity and food started around 2005 or 2006. And ILSI understood very quickly what this emerging discussion meant for researchers working with food companies. There were not any ethical guidelines at the time, so ILSI captured the discussion from the beginning to shape it. 

Companies work with a lot of nutrition researchers. Guidelines and policies at universities on this type of work could be a problem. So before there were any guidelines, ILSI published their own in the scientific literature so it would then get cited. 

My colleagues that I mentioned, they actually put this study in their review because it’s one of the oldest papers in the scientific literature on conflicts of interest in nutrition. 

DICHRON: In medicine, most doctors acknowledge corporate influence and try to figure out how to deal with it. But in food and agriculture, researchers will say that corporations don't cause influence. 

MIALON: Well, we once had doctors in advertisements for cigarettes. But in nutrition we are way, way behind in terms of conflicts of interest.

It's okay if food engineering is funded by industry, because companies process our foods. The issue is with nutrition, when corporations pretend that processed food is healthy. We need to distinguish between food science and nutrition. 

The moment food engineers say that a processed food is making you healthy, that's where it touches conflicts of interest. Because they are not in the business of health. They are in the business of making profit and products. 

DICHRON: Food science is about making foods that are safe, that taste good, and that last long. But they are not necessarily in the business of making food that's healthy. 

MIALON: Yes. The industry money in food science is not the problem. The corporate money in nutrition, that's a different story. 

DICHRON: One email chain you published for this study concerns a professor at Nottingham University named Ian MacDonald. He’s one of the top nutrition experts, and several British newspapers reported in 2014 that while he was on a UK government panel about the health impacts of sugar he was also consulting for Coca-Cola on diet and obesity, and for Mars candy.

These industry people, like Rhona Applebaum, who was the Chief Science and Health Officer at Coca-Cola, seem appalled journalists would report this. One scientist sends this email, saying that these articles on MacDonald were personal, ad hominem attacks. Instead of worrying about financial influence, they reinvent these news reports as personal attacks. 

MIALON: People understand conflicts of interest as an attack on themselves and their integrity and credibility. People don't understand the issue, and all of the scientific studies on conflicts of interest. It’s a very, very sensitive topic in nutrition. 

DICHRON: They think that reporters pointing out that Ian MacDonald was taking money from the food industry is the same as the Nazis attacking Einstein for “Jewish science.” Making that comparison is inappropriate and total craziness. 

MIALON: They took it as a personal attack.

DICHRON: Rhona Applebaum, who was at Coca-Cola, also calls for principles on civil discourse and guidelines to avoid what she calls “demonizing.” Not only do they not see these corporate relationships as problematic, they call it “demonizing” when reporters write about it. 

MIALON: They are trying to change the discussion.


DUCHRON: They’re trying to recast the controversy and ignore the science. There is a peer-reviewed literature on corporate influence that they try to dismiss as opinion. They're behaving in a non-scientific way.

MIALON: The science of conflicts of interest comes from social science and legal studies. Scientists who work in laboratories don't feel that type of science is as important as theirs. They think it’s very subjective. It's not. They don't understand that type of qualitative research. 

DICHRON: You identified five studies they published on conflicts of interest. And one involved ILSI working with DuPont. Most people think of DuPont as a chemical company and that food involves farmers out in the fields.

MIALON: In total, we had eight studies—those five you mention were found through one source of information. Dupont was involved because they manufacture food ingredients and supplements, these chemicals that go into foods. 

DICHRON: When people become concerned about these corporate ties to government, ILSI responds by helping to draft the guidelines on government and industry partnerships.

MIALON: Yes. [Laughs]

DICHRON: You're laughing but it's crazy. They basically write their own policies for government ethics.

MIALON: It was just crazy. I was shocked to find all of these things—that they worked with the National Academies of Science. I became interested in investigating this because ILSI presented at the World Conference on Research Integrity. These respected institutions work with ILSI.

DICHRON: After ILSI creates some principles on government working with industry, they have their launch event at the National Academies of Science. They basically launder this corporate-friendly policy through the National Academies and they get Undersecretary Catherine Woteki at the USDA to give the keynote address. 

MIALON: That was quite shocking for us. They went right up to the top to work with the National Academies and the USDA. The only organization to refuse to add its name to that work was the American Public Health Association. Everyone else seemed happy to be involved.

DICHRON: In 2019, ILSI publishes these principles in Science and Engineering Ethics. Is that a real journal? 

MIALON: We haven't checked. The quality of the journal doesn’t really matter for industry. As long as it’s in the scientific literature, it gets scientific credibility.

DICRHON: In 2017, ILSI started collaborating with the Center for Open Science. And at an ILSI science program in 2019, someone from this Center gave a presentation titled, “Benefits of More Transparent Research Practices and Bias Reduction Tools.” Lots of irony here.

MIALON: I mean, it couldn't be worse than that. That's the type of thing that ILSI has been doing. I was just telling colleagues in Brazil that more and more they're inviting people working on ethics and core scientific principles.

And these people likely have no clue who ILSI is; they just show up to give a talk. 

DICRHON: When Rhona Applebaum was at Coca-Cola, she helped create the Global Energy Balance Network, which the New York Times exposed as a lobbying effort to make obesity about lack of exercise and not sugary drinks. The BMJ exposed her work funding journalism conferences at the University of Colorado to get journalists to not criticize sodas.

MIALON: She was very good at what she did and she was everywhere. Coca-Cola funded a lot of research in this area.

DICHRON: Much of it got exposed, but all the research Coca-Cola funded is still part of the scientific literature, and scientists will continue to cite it in their own research. It was a win for them.

MIALON: Many people in nutrition don’t understand this because of the blurriness and cross over between food science and nutrition. Many people in this area take money from industry. Also, it was not very clear until recently that processed foods can make us sick. People in health were only talking about salt, sugar, and fat.  

You think you can work with industry and help them decrease the salt content in their products and that helps for health. Now there is more and more evidence that it's the degree of processing that's problematic. It's not just salt, sugar and fat.

DICHRON: Every scientist who can’t grasp financial influence in science, definitely understands financial influence in politics. If they see money going to a politician, they get very upset. 

MIALON: Because it's not them and not their profession. 

DICRON: Much of this study discusses America. Is that just because of the documents you had available or is corporate influence worse in America? 

MIALON: All of these companies—Coca-Cola, ILSI, and the transnationals—are mostly based in the US. The reality is that it started in the US. And the criticism and discussion of nutrition also started in the US. But industry is now working to expand their scientific integrity work to other countries.

DICHRON: Do you think your study will be widely read, or will industry try to ignore it?

MIALON: Within my bubble of people working on conflicts of interest or corporate influence, I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback. This study is quite different because we show industry trying to influence the very principles of science. 

We already got a response from the new ILSI, the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences. They say that they are quite transparent. Of course, we were pointing out that they are not as transparent about their work as they pretend. 

I think we are now on their radar.