Friend or Frenemy?


November 11, 2012 by hpworley

Can the food industry be a friend to public health?  A friend—probably not, a frenemy—maybe. A frenemy as defined by (and teenage girls) is, “Someone who is both friend and enemy, a relationship that is both mutually beneficial or dependent while being competitive, fraught with risk and mistrust.”  While the idealist in me screams these unions must be prohibited, the pragmatist in me knows the likelihood of that happening is slim.

Common sense dictates that partnership, participation or engagement, however you want to term it, is going to result in, at the very least an unspoken understanding of mutual support.  An attitude of “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine.”  Dr. Yoni Freedhoff’s presentation at the Obesity Society (2) convention presented data from study by Lesser et al (3) that found there was a 7.61% odds ratio of finding a favorable result versus and unfavorable result when comparing studies with industry funding versus studies without industry funding, respectively.  That’s a shocking number.  In some instances these partnerships just feel wrong.  Case in point, “Buckets for a Cure” where 50 cents of every bucket of chicken from Kentucky Fried Chicken purchased goes to the Susan G. Komen’s foundation for breast cancer research.

The food industry is a powerful entity.  They have money, influence and power.  They make things happen. Given enough money, the right celebrity and the best air time on TV—there’s very little they can’t sell you.  How many American’s watch the Super Bowl just for the commercials?  Betty White playing football, talking trash—until she eats a Snickers bar, priceless.  Even now, it makes me want a Snickers bar.  They are a powerful partner for the health industry who lacks enough money and perhaps the glamor to support their messages.  The ultimate question and concern though, how does this alter the message? 

At the very least government, non-government and industry professionals are coming together in forums to discuss these relationships, their impact on one another and their impact on the public as described in Building Public-Private Partnerships in Food and Nutrition Workshop Summary (4).  The premise of these workshops is that trust can be established and true bonds of collaboration can be developed.  I agree with Lesser et al (3) that academic institutions accepting money from industry organizations must still have final say in the published product.  Also that there should be a limitations making it more difficult for industry funded research studies to be published in journals–which could potentially decrease desire for the food industry to play a role in research at all.  Though these guidelines would likely still do little to defer influence.  Regardless of everyone’s best intentions, so long as the food industry’s ultimate goal is profit and the health industry’s goal in public health, it will be incredibly difficult for the frenemy state of this relationship to mature into that of a true friendship.


1) Anonymous Nick. Urban Dictionary.  Retrieved from:

 2) Y Freedhoff. (2011, October 8).  Weighty Matters: Food Industry Friend or Foe.  Retrieved from:

3) Lesser LI, Ebbeling CB, Goozner M, Wypij D, Ludwig DS (2007) Relationship between

funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles. PLoS Med 4(1): e5. doi:10.


4) Pray L & Pillsbury L. (2012).  Building Public-Private Partnerships in Food and Nutrition:

Workshop Summary.  The National Academies.  Retrieved from:




2 thoughts on “Friend or Frenemy?

  1. Olivia Dong says:

    I really like that you used the term “frenemy” to describe the relationship between food industries and government agencies. Given how different the food industry and public health’s goals are, a frenemy-type relationship might be the most realistic collaboration that preserves the priorities both entities come into a relationship needing to protect. And that’s total understandable – industries are in it to make money, not to make friends or collaborations with other entities that won’t help them reach their goals. A true friendship would occur between these two entities if the underlying objectives of these two sectors were more in line with each other. With that framework in mind, I think it’s important for the public to approach collaborations between industry and public health with a healthy dose of skepticism. If a partnership exists, the food industry’s agenda is probably being advanced in some way (which may clash with the priorities of public health) and at the same time, the public health sector’s agenda is probably being advanced (which may clash with the priorities of the industry). This may explain some of the odd initiatives we see, such as the “Buckets for a Cure” that was mentioned in the post. It does seem a bit backwards that 50 cents of every bucket of chicken purchased goes towards breast cancer research, but both parties have to benefit in some way for a collaboration to occur. The public shouldn’t automatically expect the outcomes of these partnerships to be done with their interest in mind all the time. As was stated in the post—at least these collaborations are occurring. Building healthy relationships take time to nurture, and continuing to form positive relationships with such contrasting entities will benefit the public in the long run. So who knows, maybe we need initiatives such as “Buckets for a Cure” as a stepping stone in these early stages of the friendships to get to place where industry will value the public’s health with a higher priority than where it is currently.

  2. afrazzini says:

    Hi Heidi,

    I love your hilarious characterization as food industry and public health being frenemies. I agree that the two fields will probably never get to the point where they hold hands and have picnics together, but I think it’s possible that frenemies can help each other in ways that true friends (or enemies) can’t. Frenemies challenge each other and force each other to be at the top of their game – unlike true friends who agree on things to begin with. Frenemies learn from each other’s opposing perspectives – unlike enemies who just hold each other’s values and beliefs in contempt.

    Funding bias is definitely an important ethical issue in research, but it’s good to acknowledge that there are many other types of bias that might be affecting research in the opposite way. First of all, there’s publication bias; journals want to publish flashy studies with interesting results, and therefore scientists who find evidence that a certain type of industry-produced food is bad for you are more likely to have their studies published than those who find evidence that it doesn’t affect you. Even the WHO has found that nutrition-related studies are affected by this type of bias (1). Then there are two obvious sources of bias for non-industry-funded researchers: their desire to make their research seem important and publishable, and anti-industry personal values (which may be the reason they do not accept industry funding).

    In a field like ours, with seemingly endless uncontrolled variables, it is impossible to conduct a study that incontrovertibly proves something one way or the other. It is not implausible that, in trying to make their research seem more relevant and publishable, researchers might overstate their results. In fact, this theory is supported by an analysis of published research which showed that press releases published by academic medical centers use exaggerated descriptions of the studies which they are intended to advertise (2). Could it be that the research which we are all more inclined to accept as true (due to its lack of industry funding) is in fact somewhat skewed itself? If that’s so, how do we figure out the true truth, the one that has most truthiness of all?


    1) Horta B, Bahl R, Martines J, Victora C. Evidence of the Long- Term Effects of Breastfeeding: Systematic Reviews and Meta- Analysis. World Health Organization Publication; Geneva, Switzerland: 2007.

    2)Steven Woloshin, Lisa M. Schwartz, Samuel L. Casella, Abigail T. Kennedy, & Robin J. Larson. (2009). Press releases by academic medical centers: Not so academic? Annals of Internal Medicine, 150(9), 613-U8

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: