ILSI can help reverse consumer distrust in food industry but must improve communication tactics

By Mary Ellen Shoup contact

- Last updated on GMT

ILSI insists that its industry-funded research seeks help consumer make better food and beverage choices as it strives for transparency in the industry. Pic:kasto80
ILSI insists that its industry-funded research seeks help consumer make better food and beverage choices as it strives for transparency in the industry. Pic:kasto80
Non-profit organization the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) must improve its communication strategy, says the former program manager of the group’s North America branch.

“As scientists (and legacy organizations like ILSI North America) [we] often pride ourselves with the great science we produce, but fall short of effectively communicating science and interfacing with each-other and consumers,”​ Dr. Taylor Wallace​, principal and CEO of the Think Healthy Group, Inc. who previously served as a program manager at ILSI North America, told FoodNavigator-USA.

The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), made headlines last month after Mars decided to leave the organization​ by the end of 2018.

Mars said it did not want to be involved in "advocacy-led studies that so often, and mostly for the right reasons, have been criticized”  ​and that it would "support research regardless of the results”.

The global confectionery maker also said it would be pursuing its own scientific research and engagement study that supports the publishing of sound scientific research regardless of the nature of its outcomes.

According to  Wallace, statements like these can lead to a negative ripple effect on consumers’ perceptions of the food industry.

“It promotes consumer distrust of the entire industry and encourages those with undisclosed bias and little factual information to weigh in on the issue,” ​Wallace said.

“Let’s remember that ILSI North America was one of the first groups to identify and publish clinical data which indicated harmful effects of trans fat in the food supply.”

The controversy surrounding ILSI

ILSI is a global non-profit organization that promotes public-private collaboration on science and health issues. Part of the reason it has attracted controversy is that it is funded by some heavy hitters in the food and beverage industry such as Coca-Cola, Cargill, General Mills, The Kraft Heinz Company, Mondelez, PepsiCo, and Welch’s, which has led some to criticize the validity of research coming out of the organization.

Wallace believes that ILSI has the opportunity to spearhead building a better culture of transparency in the food industry.

ILSI executive director Eric J. Hentges, for example, has publicly encouraged open data sharing within the food industry.

"Pooling research interests and having all segments together actually manages bias in science because no one interest dominates,"​ Hentges told FoodNavigator-USA.

Allison Worden, interim director of ILSI global coordination added, "One of the issues that we seem to be hitting up against is belief, perhaps by some, that some sectors cannot be participating without being in conflict. We believe that all parties have to be at the table and have to be communicating in order to advance science."

View of current ILSI North America members:

Mondelēz senior director of corporate & government affairs North America, Laurie M. Guzzinati, said the company is a member of ILSI North America’s board of trustees and is involved in the organization's various scientific communities.

“ILSI North America provides us with the opportunity to engage in and gain access to a broad range of insights and opinions relevant to our business and our industry, and we share ILSI’s belief that scientific integrity is essential to developing sound science. Through ISLI, academic, government and industry sectors come together to examine and assess science regarding important issues of public health relevance,”​ Guzzanati said.

Welch’s, also a member of ILSI North America, said in a statement: “We work with ILSI to help support scientific research and education on polyphenols and their potential impact on health, as we believe advancements in research can be achieved faster when working with partners.”

What needs to change?

Mintel’s 2018 global food and drink trends report identified “widespread” ​consumer distrust​ in the food industry and said that “complete and total transparency”​ from food and beverage companies is becoming more of a requirement in doing business.  

“The food industry must begin to work with consumers as it is the cause of much of their confusion and distrust,”​ Wallace said.

In regards to ILSI’s role in correcting consumer perception of the food industry, it must modernize and reinvent itself to promote consumer trust rather than speculation about food and nutrition, according to Wallace.

“The bottom line is that components of the diet are very difficult to study and in most cases we end up with ‘low quality’ of evidence when adopting methodologies from the dissimilar ‘reductionist’ medical field,”​ Wallace noted.

The ongoing conversation on added sugar is one example of this. Wallace acknowledges that added sugars can be detrimental to health, but adds that co-consumed food components that have similar negative effects or negate detrimental impacts must be taken into account as well.

“Dark chocolate contains added sugar and saturated fat, which has been shown to be somewhat detrimental to the cardiovascular system.  On the other hand, it also contains high amounts of flavan-3-ols which seem to have a cardio-protective effect.  So is dark chocolate healthy for you?  Like everything in nutrition, the answer is not black or white.”

Current perception of industry-funded research

While other current member companies have not made any indication of leaving ILSI, Mars’ departure does signal growing skepticism of industry-funded research among the general public, according to Dr. Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.

“Reading between the lines on their withdrawal statements I’m guessing that these companies must feel that ILSI no longer represents the values they hold or aspire to in their relationship to today’s food-conscious customers,”​ Nestle told FoodNavigator-USA.

“A significant segment of the public cares about how food choices affect health and the environment and expects companies to source ingredients and conduct business with ethics prominently in mind. ILSI has long represented food-industry commercial interests not necessarily in the interest of public or environmental health.”

However, Wallace argued that this is exactly the message that ILSI must work to dispel.

“Industry-funded research very often produces positive results; however, most food companies do their ‘homework’ and due diligence before investing significant funds in a study. We all eat and we all want our friends and family to be healthy. Yes, there are bad apples in every barrel… but I assure you that ILSI North America is not one of them.”

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