The Curious Case of the Missing Chocolate Milk Study
Welcome to “This Week in Parenting Research”! Today I want to talk about a study that’s important not for what it says, but rather for what it didn’t say…or did say….or could say…or….well, we don’t know actually. Despite an enthusiastic university press release, details of the study are surprisingly hard to come by and have never been published. Intrigued? Me too. It’s like the scientific equivalent of Serial right here. Let’s start at the beginning.
Some background: Concussions are serious business, especially when they happen to kids. Up until a few years ago this issue was almost entirely overlooked, but thanks to high profile stories on the problems faced by athletes and the increased scrutiny of the NFL concussions are now big news. While many prestigious groups and agencies have released guidelines on managing and treating concussions, some things are still unknown. Parents, particularly those whose children play high contact sports, should be concerned about them.
Given all this, it was not particularly surprising that back in December the University of Maryland put out a press release saying they had found that giving chocolate milk to high school football players helped them recover from concussions more effectively. While the conclusions immediately seemed off to more than a few people (especially since a particular brand of chocolate milk was recommended), it got really concerning when a nearby school district announced they were buying $25,000 worth of the stuff to help their athletes.
The plot thickens: A study with a dubious health claim for a specific food is not great, but certainly not unheard of. A school district getting overzealous based on these claims is more concerning, but also probably not unheard of. What happened next however IS pretty bizarre. When the watch dog group Health News Review requested the study for a review they were doing, they were told there wasn’t one…or at least one that they could see. The results were still preliminary, and the University didn’t want to talk about them. That’s a pretty strange statement for a group that had just put out a press release a few weeks earlier and had put out another one in July. That was back in January, and the story hasn’t gotten any clearer since then. So how did this happen? Where to things stand now?
What we know so far/Timeline:
August 2013 – 2014: Researcher Jae Kun Shim at the University of Maryland wins two $100,000 grants to study effects of chocolate milk on athlete recovery and head trauma. Ten percent of each of these grants was paid for by Fifth Quarter Fresh. The rest of the grants were through the Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program (MIPS).
July 21st, 2015: University of Maryland puts out a press release touting cognitive benefits of Fifth Quarter Fresh (a specific brand of chocolate milk) for general sports recovery. At some later point this was updated to clarify this was a preliminary unpublished study as well.
October 15th, 2015: Bucknell University signs 3 year deal with Fifth Quarter Fresh to provide chocolate milk to it’s athletes. Among other things, the announcement cites the July press release from U of Maryland.
December 21st, 2015: University of Maryland puts out a press release claiming Fifth Quarter Fresh offers cognitive benefits and concussion recovery help for high school student athletes.
January 5th, 2016: Health News Review rates the December press release 1/10 stars for boasting without specific facts. As part of the write up, they reach out to the University of Maryland for more information.
January 11th, 2016: Health News Review reports the University of Maryland won’t talk to them about the study. Multiple outlets pick up on the story.
January 12th, 2016: Baltimore Business Journal investigates the study and reports some ethical concerns, including the fact that parents did not sign waivers/permission slips for their children to participate in the study. The head researcher said this was unnecessary because participation was “voluntary”.
January 13th, 2016: Baltimore Business Journal reports the University of Maryland is launching an internal review to assess what happened. Health News Review also reports this.
January 20th, 2016: NY Mag “Story of Us” publishes an article on the topic, and manages to get a hold of the slides the press release was based on.
January 31st, 2016: The Washington Post reports that a high level panel met at the University on January 29th to discuss the incident and examine their communication plan for scientific results.
January 31st/February 1st, 2016: Still concerned about the lack of details and possible ethical violations, Health News Review sends a public records request (see link below) to the University of Maryland. They request the IRB approval of the study, information about Dr Shim’s outside professional activities, and a copy of the agreement they had with the public school system where the research was performed.
February 12th, 2016: University of Maryland responds to the public records request, stating it will take 30 days to get the documents, and cost $100 to $150.
February 18th, 2016: Health News Review posts the recent updates about the public records request. They also note that they are still finding websites reporting the original press release uncritically.
That brings us up to date.
Verdict: Overall, this is one heck of a concerning story. While anyone with even a dab of skepticism knows you can’t trust everything you read on the internet (hell, I’ve written a whole series about it), you would think university press releases would be a little different. While obviously they are trying to promote research and are less reliable than the actual paper, you would assume they are held to a higher standard. Stories like this most certainly can undermine the public trust in science and cause confusion. Additionally, this does raise some concerning questions about corporate partnerships in research, university standards for communication of results, and some possible ethical issues. The fact that this is still ongoing and that further information has not been made available is also concerning. Hopefully this strange story will serve as a warning to universities to be more careful in what they release in the future, and a warning to the rest of us (yet again) not to believe everything we read….even when the source seems trustworthy.
Featured Image Credit: Flickr user tracy benjamin