University Backtracks On Company-Funded Study Claiming Chocolate Milk Could Treat Concussions

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Earlier this year, public health advocates criticized a University of Maryland research program for taking money from a beverage company and then claiming in a press release — with no reviewable data to back up its assertions — that this company’s chocolate milk product could improve cognitive skills of athletes who’d suffered concussions. Today, the university is admitting that maybe this was not the brightest idea.

Just a quick catch-up for those who missed the previous story. There’s a program called Maryland Industrial Partnerships (MIPS) that teams up state school researchers with local companies. In Dec. 2015, MIPS sent out a press release claiming that a new brand of chocolate milk “helped high school football players improve their cognitive and motor function over the course of a season, even after experiencing concussions.”

Scientists and public health advocates reviewed the press release and shredded MIPS for putting out a largely fact-free, “boastful release touting vague neurological benefits of a specific chocolate milk.”

For example, while MIPS researchers used a cognitive function test with 36 different measurements, the release failed to specify which of these metrics actually showed improvement.

And instead of releasing the study or publishing it in a peer-reviewed journal, MIPS only made the press release public. A number of organizations — including Consumerist — asked to see the study on which the release was based, but MIPS declined to make it available.

But even though the researchers weren’t willing to share their actual study, they had no problem using it to market this product. The press release even included a statement from a local school superintendent who declared, “Now that we understand the findings of this study, we are determined to provide [the chocolate milk] to all of our athletes.”

In response to the criticism, the University quietly formed an ad-hoc review committee to investigate whether anything inappropriate had occurred. That committee has now released its findings [PDF] and though it found no wrongdoing on the part of the beverage company that sponsored the study, MIPS is nonetheless returning the full $228,910 in funding that it received from these backers, “out of an abundance of caution and to remove any perception of conflict of interest.”

In touting the chocolate milk — whose brand name we won’t mention — the lead researcher on the study actually included endorsements in company press releases, saying “Our data suggest that athletes may be ready faster and better for the next game or practice if they drink [this brand of] chocolate milk.”

The school’s review committee found such quotes “troubling,” even if they did not violate any written University policy.

“[I]t is surprising that a tenured faculty member would think that product endorsement is appropriate,” writes the committee in its findings.

The committee also criticized this study for not being an attempt to improve or develop a product, but to validate a specific brand. In fact, in applying for the MIPS program, the beverage company explicitly stated its intentions when it wrote that “Having research underway at the University of Maryland gives our business and its product credibility.”

Moreover, the committee raises the question of why the study tested this chocolate milk brand only against brands recommended by the sponsoring company.

Internal review during the study itself questioned why the lead researcher — a biomechanics expert — was in charge of this study, as he did “not have any experience in nutritional/supplementation research.” Likewise, the project itself was “missing numerous elements that would make this effective in concluding anything that would be useful to the company or to the state of the literature.”
The committee concluded that the project “appears more like a service agreement than research aimed at generating and disseminating new knowledge” and that there were “simply too many uncontrolled variables to produce meaningful scientific results.”

As part of the committee recommendations, MIPS has scrubbed the relevant press releases from its website, though thankfully there’s the Wayback Machine to retain this embarrassment for posterity.

Additionally, the committee recommends that no press release should include even a preliminary conclusion until after the data has been peer-reviewed and, under most circumstances, accepted for publication.

“We have already begun work with our conflict of interest committee to make appropriate changes to conflict of interest policies and training programs for all applicable research and administrative personnel,” says the University in a statement. “While we have every reason to believe this was an isolated incident, any deviations from accepted practices in the responsible conduct of research cannot be tolerated. Any potential sanctions against faculty or staff involved in this matter would be considered, by policy, confidential personnel matters.”

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