From Chocolate to Global Warming: The Corporate Takeover of Science

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET

If you think the news about chocolate being healthful for your heart and for your brain is too good to be true, you're right: the research is less encouraging than the reporting about it. For instance, a Talk of the Nation public radio feature touted flavanols as the "magic molecules" in cocoa, shown in studies to relax blood vessels and increase their flexibility, yet ignored the obvious fact that when cocoa becomes but one ingredient in chocolate, whatever heath-healthy virtues it possesses are offset by saturated fat and sugar.

Similarly, the San Francisco Chronicle offers its readers "Some Sweet News: Chocolate Could Be Good for Your Memory," but neglects to mention that researcher Ian Macdonald found no difference in cognitive test performance after his subjects drank a cocoa mixture; its only effect, as indicated by MRI scans, was to increase blood flow to the brain. (Decreased cerebral circulation as a natural result of aging or because of a disease condition is associated with memory problems, so it is conceivable that cocoa, as well as other substances with flavanols such as apples, grapes, and green tea, could help with that.)

The cocoa plot thickens when one considers that the researchers themselves may have given their findings an overly positive spin, and that their findings may even be tainted, due to their exceedingly close relationship with the chocolate industry. For instance, Mars Incorporated, one of the world's largest producers of chocolate, funded 3 out of 4 researchers who recently presented at a major scientific conference. Mars also sponsored the symposium at which they presented, and Mars' chief science officer, Harold Schmitz, presided over the panel. Furthermore, the research itself was conducted using CocoaPro® cocoa formulated by Mars to be rich in flavanols. It will come as no surprise that Mars is in the process of producing flavanol-rich chocolate made by the same proprietary process.

I see nothing wrong with a company wanting to produce a better product, and if it happens to be a company doing tens of billions of dollars in annual sales, all the better. That a confectionery colossus would strive to come up with more healthful chocolate products is akin to the titans of Detroit striving to design more fuel-efficient cars: all the more commendable because these industries rarely put forth such efforts. But when corporate research and development is outsourced to academic institutions, especially public universities, it raises obvious concerns.

I can understand what the executives at Mars are thinking. If they came up with some significant findings in-house, their research would lack credibility unless replicated by legitimate outside scientists. It is more expeditious to fund multiple outside scientists--preferably at prestigious institutions--to carry out the work. The problem is that once Mars has done the funding, the scientists are no longer strictly "outside."

In a recently released study, Relationship Between Funding Source and Conclusion among Nutrition Related Scientific Articles by Lenard Lesser et al, the authors conclude that "industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of the sponsors' products with potentially significant implications for public health." Specifically, they found that industry-funded research is 4 to 8 times more likely than independently funded research to result in findings favorable to the sponsor.

This is simply common sense, considering the all-too-frequent conflicts of interest. At the University of California at Davis, for instance, Mars endowed a chair in the nutrition department and has funded at least 20 researchers. The inside/outside boundaries there have become increasingly porous: one faculty member (who was on the panel that recently presented its cocoa research) accepted a position last year at Mars, and Harold Schmitz is currently a visiting professor in nutrition. When one factors in the 10 million dollars that Mars has poured into the institution over the last 10 years, wouldn't these academics feel just a little bit pressured to provide Mars with some good news?

Mars could rightfully argue that if they did not fund the research, it would not get done. And that, in an Almond Joy nutshell, is one of the major issues facing the world today: as scientific knowledge progresses, corporations increasingly decide the route it takes, and how far it goes. Since government increasingly serves corporate interests--even as government funding of academic research has consistently been slashed--more and more scientific research is driven by corporate dollars, and hamstrung by the corporate imperative to get a return on its investment. As Mars states in its company philosophy: "We need freedom to shape our future; we need profit to remain free."

Our situation is becoming comparable to that of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where scientific inquiry is limited to what will fuel consumerism, and distract or pleasure the masses. In Huxley's dystopia, knowledge was once the scientist's highest good, truth "the supreme value." But after society was taken over by a government controlled by industry, pure science was recognized to be potentially dangerous to maintaining the status quo, and had to be "carefully chained and muzzled."

This is where we now find ourselves: it is bad enough that our universities are being paid to research pleasure foods which will be marketed to an often obese population that doesn't eat enough fruits and vegetables. What is worse is the important research that is neglected as university resources are diverted to accommodate corporate agendas. Worse still is the vital research that is being thwarted or suppressed because it will spell trouble for industry's bottom line.

A glaring example is global warming, the scientific issue that may eventually trump all others in the 21st century. At last the information dam has broken, yet even after a series of authoritative statements and reports from top scientists--and testimony from some of them about the censorship they have faced--Big Oil and its government representatives continue to deny or downplay the reality and implications of human-generated climate change.

To compound this problem, the mainstream media sometimes seem to collude with them. At the same American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in February at which the chocolate findings were released, the AAAS board of directors announced its consensus that "global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society." Yet that news got little play compared to the chocolate pseudo-breakthroughs.

New York Times science blogger John Tierney, for example, introduced his coverage of the conference in this way: "The theme at this year's meeting, in San Francisco, was 'sustainability'-- not the most sprightly topic. But in between the lectures on environmental degradation, there were some cheerier discussions." He then segues into three paragraphs on "the healing power of chocolate," and concludes with some new findings about asteroids.

Do we no longer care about what is truly important, and are the media supplying us with the pabulum we demand? Or are the media keeping us under-informed on the issues that really matter to us? In any case, we are approaching the point where news is not news unless it has entertainment value. And, as Neil Postman predicted, we may end up amusing ourselves to death.

Huxley forecasted a society in which those in power would endlessly distract the masses, but he could not have imagined that the power mongers would be too shortsighted--or blinded by greed--to know what's good for them. Certainly curbing emissions and giving up our oil addiction will rock the existing world order, and we'll all pay a price, especially industry. But that cost will be minuscule compared to the devastation that will follow if industry persists in chaining and muzzling science.

It is tragic that as this denial and inaction drags on, our planet is being irreparably damaged, and the environmental and public policy changes that so urgently need to be enacted are being delayed. But, hey, why listen to me, a misfit in our brave new world? Lie back and have some chocolate. They say it's good for your brain.

Mark Klempner is a historian and social commentator. Details about his upcoming Heart Has Reasons book tour may be found at