How candy makers shape nutrition science

Children who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who don’t

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It was a startling scientific finding: Children who eat candy tend to weigh less than those who don’t.

Less startling was how it came about. The paper was funded by a trade association representing the makers of Butterfingers, Hershey and Skittles. And its findings were touted by the group even though one of its authors didn’t seem to think much of it.

“We’re hoping they can do something with it – it’s thin and clearly padded,” a nutrition professor wrote to one of her co-authors in 2011, with an abstract for the paper attached.

The comment was in emails obtained by The Associated Press through records requests with public universities as part of an investigation into how food companies influence attitudes about healthy eating.

One of the industry’s most powerful tactics is the funding of nutrition research. It carries the weight of academic authority, becomes a part of scientific literature and generates headlines.

Funders say they follow guidelines to ensure scientific integrity, and many researchers see industry collaboration as critical for advancing science. Critics fear that companies use science for marketing and hype the findings.

The thinner-children-ate-candy research was drawn from a government database of surveys that asks people to recall what they ate in the past 24 hours. The data “may not reflect usual intake” and “cause and effect associations cannot be drawn,” the candy paper authors wrote.

The candy association’s press release did not mention that and declared, “New study shows children and adolescents who eat candy are less overweight or obese.”

Carol O’Neil, the Louisiana State University professor who made the “thin and clearly padded” remark, said in a phone interview the comment was a reference to the abstract she had attached for her co-author to provide feedback on, and that she did not remember why she made it. She said she believed the full paper was “robust.”

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