Dairy scientist decides to milk his research for all it's worth

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The scientific findings of Michael Zemel, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and medicine at the University of Tennessee, offer a surprising link between eating dairy products and weight loss. His research is now the basis for more than $200 million in marketing from various dairy organizations as well as millions more from the likes of Kraft Foods and Dannon Co. Dr. Zemel, in an unusual arrangement for a nutritionist, is getting a cut.

With business acumen atypical of scientists, Dr. Zemel and his home university-funded by such organizations as the National Dairy Council and General Mills-recognized the power of the dairy/diet link for marketing purposes and patented the claim.

SIGN OF THINGS TO COME?

Dairy purveyors now must pay Dr. Zemel a licensing fee if they refer to his research-a sign, no doubt, of things to come as the lines between science and marketing continue to blur for growth-desperate food marketers. Dr. Zemel defends his decision. "To the extent that someone is going to commercialize [the research], that commercialization should be controlled and the benefits of it should be shared," he said. "It's about time nutrition scientists were able to enjoy the fruits of their labors."

Food companies, Dr. Zemel said, have enjoyed until now what he calls a "free ride," taking advantage of others' research to market the increasing range of health claims from oats lowering cholesterol to lycopene-laden tomatoes reducing cancer risk.

But while funding from industry giants is part of the daily reality of many nutrition researchers, the increasing link between commercialization and science is looked at with skepticism by many, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Dr. Zemel is included on its Integrity in Science Project database of industry-funded scientists, listing among his benefactors General Mills, Quaker Oats and the National Dairy Council.

Dr. Zemel compared what he is doing to scientists who work for pharmaceutical companies, who have long patented their work and benefited from it. But CSPI and others have long pointed fingers at that industry for creating what they see as biased data.

Consumers, meanwhile, are barraged by a growing number of commercialized scientific messages, most of which are contradicted at some point by other scientific data (whether commissioned by opposing factions or by independent researchers).

OPPOSING FINDINGS

Dr. Zemel's research found that dairy plays a role in weight loss and the faster burning of fat, especially in the abdominal region. But since he staked his claim to that position, opposing findings from Brigham & Women's Hospital and Harvard University in Boston were released and publicized. The new report, headed by Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard (who himself appears on CSPI's database as having been funded by citrus growers and the Prune Board), found in fact that among a group of children 9 to 14, those who drank more milk weighed more than those who drank less.

The newsworthiness of science claims, which is what makes them so appealing to marketers, is exactly what can be detrimental.

`MODEST' PROFIT

"Science doesn't nicely fit the media because it is a process where what you're doing is starting out saying there is a probability that something is true and very often even legitimate researchers will find something contrary," said John Stanton, professor-food marketing, St. Joseph's University.

So how effective has the dairy/weight-loss claim been? Since early 2004 when the International Dairy Foods Association entreated members to license Dr. Zemel's claim that foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt can aid in weight loss when combined with exercise and a reduced-calorie diet, "there has been no perceptible growth in fluid milk and yogurt continues to grow, but at the same rate it had before," said Neuberger Berman analyst Bill Leach.

Dr. Zemel himself has profited only "modestly," he said, from his patents and the book he wrote on his findings, "The Calcium Key," making under $100,000 on each. Not enough, he said, to upgrade from his 1999 Mazda Miata. Maybe that will change as marketers continue to come to him in what he calls their "enlightened self-interest."

* Dr. Zemel’s research is the basis for $200 million in marketing from various organizations

* Critics like CSPI have expressed concern about the commercialization of science

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