A controversial researcher known for bucking the well-established dietary advice that people should limit their sugar and red meat intake has, once again, failed to disclose his financial ties to the food industry.
Epidemiologist Bradley Johnston failed to report funding from a research agency backed by the beef industry when he published a high-profile review on red meat consumption, according to the journal that published the review last year, Annals of Internal Medicine. The review concluded that consumers should continue—not reduce—their consumption of red and processed meats, which has been fiercely criticized by nutrition experts.
Annals issued a correction on the review last week, updating the review’s accompanying disclosure forms.
In the correction notice, Annals editors stated that Johnston’s industry-linked grant money was specifically for studying saturated and polyunsaturated fats. The Washington Post reported further detail on the grant money, saying that Johnston and his former employer Dalhousie University received $76,863 to conduct a new meta-analysis on saturated fat.
That grant money came from AgriLife Research, a part of Texas A&M University that is partially funded by the beef industry. According to Patrick Stover, vice chancellor and dean of AgriLife, the Texas research agency received more than $2 million in funding from the beef industry in 2019 alone.
Stover was also a co-author on the Annals study with Johnston, along with an international team of researchers. Stover has since hired Johnston as an associate professor of community health and epidemiology at Texas A&M.
All of this raises questions about whether Johnston had an agenda to downplay the health risks of red and processed meats—which can be high in saturated fats.
Such questions are not new to Johnston.
Tainted food studies
In 2016, Johnston led another high-profile, widely panned study that concluded that the recommendation to reduce sugar intake is based on weak scientific evidence.
Like the newer red meat study, Johnston’s sugar study used a method called GRADE to rate the quality of evidence behind the dietary recommendations. But GRADE was mainly designed to assess clinical drug trials, which can be double-blinded and placebo-controlled, according to experts who spoke to the Times. Such controls are difficult if not impossible to include in dietary studies.
Moreover, the sugar study was funded by International Life Sciences Institute, a shadowy food industry trade group whose members include McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Cargill, one of the largest beef processors in North America, according to the Times.
At the time of publication, Johnston and his co-authors claimed that ILSI had no direct role in the study, which was also published in Annals. But an Associated Press investigation found that ILSI “reviewed and approved” the study’s protocol and even “requested revisions.” After the AP’s findings, Annals issued a correction on the study, updating the author disclosure form—much like the correction on Johnston’s red meat study.
In the wake of backlash from the sugar study’s industry ties, Johnston told the Times that he learned the lesson “to separate oneself. It’s not worth working with industry at all.”