The headlines were a fettuccine fanatic’s dream. “Eating Pasta Linked to Weight Loss in New Study,” Newsweek reported this month, racking up more than 22,500 Facebook likes, shares, and comments. The happy news also went viral on the Independent, the New York Daily News, and Business Insider.
What those and many other stories failed to note, however, was that three of the scientists behind the study in question had financial conflicts as tangled as a bowl of spaghetti, including ties to the world’s largest pasta company, the Barilla Group.
Over the last decade or so, with the rise of the Atkins, South Beach, paleo, and ketogenic diets, Big Pasta has battled a societal shift against carbohydrates — and funded and promoted research suggesting that noodles are good for you.
At least 10 peer-reviewed studies about pasta published since 2008 were either funded directly by Barilla or, like the one published this month, were carried out by scientists who have had financial ties to the company, which reported sales of 3.4 billion euros ($4.2 billion) in 2016. For two years, Barilla has publicized some of these studies, plus others favorable to its product, on its website with taglines like “Eat Smart Be Smart...With Pasta” and “More Evidence Pasta Is Good For You.” And the company hired the large public relations firm Edelman to push the latest study’s findings to journalists.
None of these studies reported anything negative about eating pasta. And that’s not necessarily incorrect. Pasta, in moderation, is a staple of the healthy Mediterranean diet. But health experts say that consumers should be skeptical of the findings of any single study, and should know that the pasta industry is only funding science because it sees an upside.
“The purpose of these studies is not to do basic science about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet — those are very well-established,” said Marion Nestle, a New York University emerita professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health who tracks how the food industry funds science. “The purpose of this is to sell more pasta.”
Barilla also sponsors scientific conferences. Those include the Italian Society of Human Nutrition’s April 2017 conference in Parma, Italy — where Barilla is based — with the special theme of “Pasta: new needs, new ingredients, new technologies,” and last June’s International Symposium on Diabetes and Nutrition in Denmark. The new study’s results were presented at both meetings.
There’s also the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation, which describes itself as an independent think tank and runs its own annual conference about nutrition and sustainability research. And Barilla funds an anti–childhood obesity program in Parma, which includes Barilla-sponsored cooking classes and has enrolled more than 40,000 kids since 2002. Studies about the program claim it has helped improve children’s nutrition knowledge and joint mobility.
“In conducting scientific research, we abide by guiding principles that were created to maintain transparency and minimize potential bias,” Anna Rosales, director of nutrition, technical regulatory, and scientific affairs at Barilla America, told BuzzFeed News by email. For example, she said, citing those principles, scientists have “the freedom to publish their findings, regardless of outcome.”
In its 2016 annual report, the company reported spending 40 million euros ($49.5 million) on research and development, including “intense nutritional research on pasta aimed at divulging accurate information on the nutritional quality of complex carbohydrates, with numerous studies under way in Europe and the United States, with the purpose of assessing the impact of eating pasta on body weight and glycemic response and more generally, the role this product plays in our diet.” (After publication of this story, the company told BuzzFeed News that in 2016 it spent 333,000 euros, or about $400,000, on external scientific research.)
In funding academic scientists, Barilla is following the playbook of other food and beverage giants, said Nestle of New York University: “They are doing what every other food company is doing, which is to try to get research that will demonstrate that the products are healthy.” Coca-Cola, for example, funded a group that was criticized for promoting the idea of exercising more and worrying less about calories. The alcohol industry is funding an ongoing government trial about the potential health benefits of moderate drinking, and Big Sugar has funded research on the dangers of fat.
Several years ago, Nestle visited Barilla’s Parma headquarters. “They were really, really concerned that the low-carb movement was going to kill them,” she recalled, “and that if they didn’t do something to make their products appear more nutritional and healthier, they were going to be in trouble.”
Asked whether Barilla’s research was fueled by anti-carb sentiments, Rosales said, “Barilla does not base its funding on fad diets or trends. The intent of participating in research is grounded in better understanding how our products fit into a healthy lifestyle.”
The latest pasta study to go viral — as disclosed in its 1,100-word statement of “competing interests” — was carried out by three scientists with financial relationships to the food industry: Cyril Kendall, John Sievenpiper, and David Jenkins, all from St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. These scientists have received financial support, such as funding or food donations, from dozens of companies and industry groups, including Barilla, the statement noted.
Although Barilla did not fund the study (which was a review of existing research, not a new experiment), all three scientists have been co-authors of past studies partially funded by the company, all about the health effects of diets that included pasta.
Jenkins told BuzzFeed News that Barilla contributed about $456,000 to his research between 2004 and 2015, as well as travel funding. Barilla is also donating about 15,000 boxes of pasta to an ongoing clinical trial of theirs, Sievenpiper said, testing whether certain foods, combined with exercise, can improve heart health.
The researchers say that big trials are expensive and that they wouldn’t be able to carry them out with government grants alone.
“It’s very hard to fund randomized trials properly,” Sievenpiper told BuzzFeed News, explaining why he’s accepted research grants, food donations, and other forms of funding from the likes of the National Dried Fruit Trade Association, the California Walnut Commission, Unilever, and Quaker, in addition to government funding. “You have to engage the food industry to get those trials done.”
He and his colleagues, he added, “see it as our role to try to influence [companies] and produce healthier foods and promote healthier foods.”
Studies backed by food companies are much more likely to favor their sponsors’ financial interests than independently funded studies, research shows. Still, getting money from industry is common, and these conflicts of interest don’t necessarily mean that a given dataset shouldn’t be trusted.
“Even though you can see evidence of overall bias in the literature, it doesn’t mean that any one study is biased, either intentionally or subconsciously, or that any researcher is specifically biased,” said David Ludwig, a nutrition professor at Harvard School of Public Health, who has studied research funded by beverage companies.
And in the hierarchy of carbohydrates, Ludwig says, lightly cooked pasta does have some nutritional advantages over others as measured by “glycemic index” — or how quickly our digestive system breaks down a food into sugars that are then absorbed into the bloodstream. The glycemic index for spaghetti is 49, which is lower than white bread (75) and white rice (73) but higher than, say, an apple (36).
In the new study, Sievenpiper said his team was curious whether pasta was really hurting people’s ability to lose weight, citing anti-carb chatter on social media and from nutrition experts. “Is this really, of all the things we need to worry about, a concern?” he said.
His team looked at 32 randomized control trials about low-glycemic diets that included pasta. Across all of these trials, the study found, the low-glycemic diets did not appear to contribute to weight gain. And people on these diets were more likely to lose weight than those on higher-glycemic diets.
Independent scientists, however, are skeptical of these conclusions. For example, just 11 of the 32 trials included data about how much pasta people actually ate, a median of 3.3 servings per week. (A serving is about half a cup.) And the weight loss that did emerge was tiny — about 1.4 pounds.
“I think everyone would agree that three servings of pasta a week is not going to lead to weight gain,” said Kevin Klatt, a graduate student in nutritional sciences at Cornell University who was not involved in the work.
Those weaknesses are clearly stated in the paper, Sievenpiper said, adding that he was careful to hedge in the press release that he had “some confidence” in concluding that “perhaps pasta can be part of a healthy diet.” He also argued that the media oversimplified the findings.
“This is pasta in the context of a low-glycemic diet,” he said. “Yes, it can fit in a healthy diet and it doesn’t mean you can go hog wild and consume as much as you want on any diet.”
But Kristin Sainani, an associate professor of health research and policy at Stanford University, doesn’t necessarily blame journalists for getting the story wrong. She found it “a little bit misleading” that the scientists would single out pasta in their analysis, and stick “pasta” in the title, when the dish wasn’t a core part of any of the underlying trials.
“Given that some of the authors do have a tie to the pasta industry, it just raises a question mark for me: Why the unwarranted focus on pasta?” she said.
Barilla’s funded research includes a 2017 study that looked at whether pasta was connected to risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes. There turned out to be scant evidence for that link, but the scientists did confirm that pasta leads to a lower post-meal blood-sugar spike than bread or potatoes. On Barilla’s website, it got translated into this alluring takeaway: “Pasta meals may result in more stable blood sugar than meals with bread or potatoes.”
Then there was the 2016 study that reported that eating pasta was linked to having a lower body mass index and smaller waist. “Eating Pasta Does Not Cause Obesity, Italian Study Finds,” reported a Time story with more than 72,000 Facebook likes, comments, and shares. “Pasta Doesn’t Make You Gain Weight, Says Best Study Ever,” Women’s Health declared.
Barilla, too, was thrilled. “Enjoy your favorite carb, guilt-free!” the company announced online, without mentioning it had partly funded the survey of Italians that was the basis for the research. “The study also showed that a pasta focused diet may lead to a trimmer waistline and a slimmer belly. Sounds good to us!”
But that research had serious flaws. Regina Nuzzo, a statistics professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, pointed out that its first statistical analysis did find a link between being obese and eating more pasta. But once the scientists crunched the data a different way, the association disappeared. “And very conveniently, it went in the other direction,” Nuzzo said. (The study’s senior author, Licia Iacoviello of the Institute for Research, Hospitalization and Health Care Neuromed in Pozzilli, Italy, did not respond to requests for comment.)
A similar Barilla study last year reported on how pasta fit into Americans’ diets, based on a survey of nearly 11,000 adults’ dietary habits. One of the study’s authors, Victor Fulgoni, is an executive at the consulting firm Nutrition Impact LLC, whose self-described goal is to help food companies “develop and communicate aggressive, science-based claims about their products and services.” Fulgoni declined to comment for this story.
The National Pasta Association has commissioned at least two studies that were presented at conferences over the last year and a half but have not yet been published in journals. Together, they reported that pasta-eating children and adults have better diets than non-pasta-eaters.
Bastiaan de Zeeuw, chairman of the National Pasta Association, said in a statement that it funds research to help fill a “gap in nutritional research around pasta’s specific role in the diet.” He said the group is not involved in how the studies are done.
In Parma, thousands of children have learned about healthy eating and working out through Giocampus, the educational program funded by Barilla, the city, the University of Parma, and other local institutions. A recent study partially funded by Barilla examined the diets and health habits of nearly 700 participating fifth-graders, many of whom reported eating pasta almost every day. The study found that kids’ sleep habits are linked to being overweight and that those who stayed on the Mediterranean diet were more likely to do well in school.
Barilla touted the Giocampus study as a family-friendly nutrition lesson: “Pasta by itself won’t make your children smarter, but the complex carbs in it will help them stay full longer and keep them focused on their studies, not to mention fueling their physical activity which will further help them improve their cognitive abilities.”
One of the study’s authors, Maria Vittoria Calestani, became a publicist for Barilla in June 2017, the same month the study was published, according to her LinkedIn. And the pasta maker sponsored a sleep “awareness” day run a few months prior by another author, Liborio Parrino, a sleep disorder specialist at the University of Parma. Neither returned a request for comment.
Yet another author from the same university, nutrition researcher Francesca Scazzina, is on a scientific committee that studies Giocampus, and has done research with funding or donated food from Barilla. She said that her team has done studies over the last four years with about 15,000 euros ($18,500) from the project’s sponsors, including Barilla.
“Everything we did in the framework of this project, using money paid by this virtuous alliance of sponsors, has had amazing positive repercussions on the local community, making Parma one of the best place in the world to live, at least if you are a school child!” she said by email.
Barilla isn’t the only pasta manufacturer putting money into science. Granoro, based in southeastern Italy, drew headlines like “Pasta Could Help Save Your Life, Says New Study” last fall for research into a new, barley-enriched pasta that was shown to improve mice’s heart health.
Another brand, Kamut, pays for research into khorasan, an organically grown ancient Mesopotamian wheat mostly sold in Italy — and Bob Quinn, the Montana-based organic farmer who leads the brand, said that work isn’t a response to the low-carb craze at all.
More than a decade ago, Quinn told BuzzFeed News, customers were telling him they felt better eating khorasan than they did modern, mass-produced wheat, so he asked US researchers to study khorasan’s health effects. They all turned him down, he recalled.
So he took his offer to Italy, where researchers were much more receptive. His company has funneled almost $2 million into more than 20 published studies about health, Quinn said, some of which suggest khorasan — in pasta, bread, crackers, and other foods — could help fend against heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Quinn said he helps the scientists generate research ideas, but that the experts are free to publish whatever they find. They haven’t always seen big differences between the modern and ancient wheat, but they also haven’t seen any significant health problems from the latter, he said.
“What we’re doing is doing research that would otherwise not be done,” he said. ●
This story has been updated with information from Barilla about how much it spent on external scientific research in 2016.