Chocolate Milk Maker Behind Sketchy “Cognitive Skills” Study Hoped To Cash In On Concussion Movie

Last December, researchers from the University of Maryland put out a press release claiming — without showing any of the science to back up the assertions — that a certain brand of chocolate milk could improve cognitive skills of concussed athletes. The study — paid for by the chocolate milk company — was widely derided and the school has since admitted that the press release was rushed and botched. So what was the hurry in getting this incomplete science news out there? Apparently, in the hopes of riding the coattails of a new Will Smith movie.

The AP reports that emails between a university professor and the owner of chocolate milk company discuss the importance of timing the announcement of the sketchy study to the Christmas 2015 release of Concussion, the film in which Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor whose reputation was smeared by the NFL after he tried to spotlight the link between football-related concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

The company’s owner also correctly predicted that the press release would be heavily scrutinized and attacked, saying they needed to “talk through every element of the press release” to make sure it was backed up by the data.

The professor in charge of the study — who is a biomechanics expert without any prior experience in nutritional/supplementation research — then sent drafts of the study’s abstract to the milk company owner for approval.

While the messages discuss the importance of having the study’s claims backed up by the data, in one email, the professor writes that he was “trying to figure out how to report the football results because there are some ‘negative’ results.”

When the press release was made public, the backlash from the scientific community was harsh, as no actual data was included in the release, and no copies of the study were made available to the public or for peer review by other researchers.

In response to the criticism, the school initially said that the data was not released because it was preliminary. But the critics fired back, noting that if the results were preliminary, then the lead researcher should not have explicitly endorsed the product with statements like, “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 press release also included a statement from a local school superintendent who said his district would be providing the chocolate milk to all its athletes “Now that we understand the findings of this study”… even though the finds were, at best, vague.

An internal University of Maryland review of the study and of the press release criticized the project — part of the Maryland Industrial Partnerships (MIPS), which teams up state school researchers with local companies — for these “troubling” endorsements.

The investigation also questioned the entire point of the study. Rather than use the MIPS program to develop or improve a product using science, this appeared to be solely an attempt on the part of the chocolate milk company to bolster its marketing. The review noted that if this were a truly unbiased study, it would not have focused solely on results for a single product without comparing it to other beverages.

In the end, the school chose to return the full $228,910 in funding it had received from the milk company for this study.