Food industry donations to academic programs: A cross-sectional examination of the extent of publicly available data

Marie A. Bragg, Brian Elbel, Marion Nestle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


No studies have documented the prevalence of the food industry’s funding of academic programs, which is problematic because such funding can create conflicts of interest in research and clinical practice. We aimed to quantify the publicly available information on the food industry’s donations to academic programs by documenting the amount of donations given over time, categorizing the types of academic programs that receive food industry donations, cataloguing the source of the donation information, and identifying any stated reasons for donations. Researchers cataloged online data from publicly available sources (e.g., official press releases, news articles, tax documents) on the food industry’s donations to academic programs from 2000 to 2016. Companies included 26 food and beverage corporations from the 2016 Fortune 500 list in the United States. Researchers recorded the: (1) monetary value of the donations; (2) years the donations were distributed; (3) the name and type of recipient; (4) source of donation information; and (5) reasons for donations. Adjusting for inflation, we identified $366 million in food industry donations (N = 3274) to academic programs. Universities received 45.2% (n = 1480) of donations but accounted for 67.9% of total dollars given in the sample. Community colleges, schools (i.e., preschool, elementary, middle, and high schools), and academic nonprofits, institutes, foundations, and research hospitals collectively received 54.8% of the donations, but made up less than one-third of the monetary value of donations. Half of the donations (49.0%) did not include a stated reason for the donation. In our sample, donations grew from $3 million in 2000 to $24 million in 2016. Food companies in our sample donated millions of dollars to universities and other academic programs but disclosed little information on the purpose of the donations. Achieving transparency in donation practices may only be possible if federal policies begin to require disclosures or if companies voluntarily disclose information.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1624
JournalInternational journal of environmental research and public health
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020


  • Academic donations
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Food industry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pollution
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


Dive into the research topics of 'Food industry donations to academic programs: A cross-sectional examination of the extent of publicly available data'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this