Why won’t the University of Maryland talk about the chocolate milk/concussion study it was so eager to promote?

Editor’s note: In response to concerns first raised by HealthNewsReview.org in a news release review and the following blog post, the University of Maryland has announced it is conducting an investigation into the study at the center of this controversy. 


concussion

Why did the University of Maryland issue multiple news releases about a health research project… and then decline to talk about it? That’s just one of the questions piling up about research involving high school football players, concussions and a brand of chocolate milk.

It started routinely. I was asked by HealthNewsReview.org to take the first look at a news release from the University of Maryland. “Concussion-Related Measures Improved in High School Football Players Who Drank New Chocolate Milk, UMD Study Shows” read the headline. The lead went further, claiming not just an association, but that the milk was responsible.

Fifth Quarter Fresh, a new, high-protein chocolate milk, helped high school football players improve their cognitive and motor function over the course of a season, even after experiencing concussions, a new preliminary University of Maryland study shows.” – University of Maryland news release

My first step when doing one of these reviews is to read the original research report. But there was no journal article cited in the release. Searches of the university web site and www.PubMed.gov came up empty. I emailed and called news office contacts for the university/industry R&D program, Maryland Industrial Partnerships program (MIPS), that put out the release and the UM School of Public Health, home of lead researcher Prof. Jae Kun Shim. I also emailed and called Prof. Shim. While waiting to hear back, I proceeded with my review of the release, sans study article. (The final review found the news release to be “Not Satisfactory” on all but one of 10 criteria.)

The next morning I received a call from the MIPS news office contact listed on the news release, Eric Schurr. What I heard astounded me. I couldn’t find any journal article because there wasn’t one. Not only wasn’t this study published, it might never be submitted for publication. There wasn’t even an unpublished report they could send me. Schurr said he would try to connect me with Prof. Shim. I told him that my initial review of the release wasn’t glowing, in part because there were vague claims of improvements and higher scores, but not a single specific number by which to judge the amount of any potential benefit. I also questioned the university’s decision to issue a news release (and a related one issued last summer) without being ready to provide supporting details about the study and its results.

The next day things took a turn. I received an email from Schurr that said in part, “Thank you for reaching out and following up regarding the Fifth Quarter Fresh study. Since this is a preliminary study, we have learned it will make more sense to speak with you once there are more conclusive research results.”

While the University of Maryland program invited reporters to regurgitate their news releases, when I started asking questions, the invitation to report on this research was rescinded.

I asked Schurr for a chance to speak with him about the decision to issue a news release on a project that suddenly was too “preliminary” to talk about. He referred me to Crystal Brown, Chief Communications Officer for the University of Maryland. She asked me by email what information I needed for my story. After I told her that I had questions about the university’s policies on issuing news releases and the decision to not provide study details, she wrote back, “Thanks for your interest in an interview, but I must respectfully decline at this time.  However, I’m happy to alk with you once a paper is published on this research and there is more conclusive information to share.”

I persevered, sending Brown a list of some of my questions of the policies and conduct of the university, including how the refusal to provide study details squares with the university policy on industry collaboration that states in part: “It is the policy of UM that instruction, research, and services will be accomplished openly and will lead to the publication and dissemination of the results of academic and research activities.” (See a list of other unanswered questions below.)

One of the more troubling items in the news release is a quote from the superintendent of the school district whose students participated in this experiment.

“There is nothing more important than protecting our student-athletes,” said Clayton Wilcox, superintendent of Washington County Public Schools. “Now that we understand the findings of this study, we are determined to provide Fifth Quarter Fresh to all of our athletes.” – University of Maryland news release

So it appears that the school is ready to change student-athlete nutrition based on research that is not available for independent review. Sure, doling out chocolate milk seems benign, though each serving contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar. (The news release touted the milk’s protein, calcium and electrolyte content, but omitted any mention of sugar.) But how can this study be convincing enough to act on, if it is too preliminary to talk about?

I would have asked Superintendent Wilcox that question, if he had returned my call. (His secretary noted that I was the second reporter to call about that topic. The HealthNewsReview.org one-star review of the University of Maryland news release inspired some curiosity. I hope Wilcox responds to the other reporters.) I would also ask him whether the Fifth Quarter Fresh product costs more than generic chocolate milk, and if so, why should the school pay a premium when, according to the news release, the study did not include any other brands of chocolate milk, so there’s no evidence this product produces different results.

A final note… the purpose of reviewing news releases is to offer constructive criticism. News releases, especially from sources such as the University of Maryland that are widely perceived to be acting to benefit the community, are increasingly passed along to the public with little or no scrutiny. Certainly that was the case here, in which the stories we found online either simply re-posted the news release or provided a summary, without delving into the underlying study. In order to truly serve the public, those issuing news releases should aspire to meeting the 10 HealthNewsReview.org criteria (the items specific to news releases are listed below the criteria applied to news reports).

Here is the list of some of the questions I’d like the University of Maryland to answer:

  •  Is it UMD policy to issue news releases containing health claims and research conclusions, without providing the data underlying those statements?
  • What is the relationship between the company and the university and its researchers? What was the company’s involvement in the design, conduct, analysis and presentation of the study and its results? Specifically, how does the project and the dissemination of results conform with UMD’s policies on research agreements with industry, including “It is the policy of UM that instruction, research, and services will be accomplished openly and will lead to the publication and dissemination of the results of academic and research activities”? (http://www.ora.umd.edu/resources/model-agreement)
  • Detailed disclosures have become standard practice in medical research and journal publication. Does UMD have any policies about disclosure of potential financial or other conflicts of interest? If so, how were they applied in this case?
  • Was the participation of the students reviewed by the University of Maryland Institutional Review Board? If not, why not?
  • The news release included a quote from a public school superintendent stating that, based on the results of the study, the school district would like to provide Fifth Quarter Fresh chocolate milk to all student athletes. Did Prof. Shim or others at UMD tell school officials that the Fifth Quarter Fresh product is superior to other milk products, even though the news releases indicate that the studies have not actually compared Fifth Quarter Fresh to any other milk?

I’m waiting for answers.

Addendum: Our review of this UMD news release has led to a number of follow-up stories that have added depth and context to our reporting. This is one of the reasons we think it’s important to review these PR communications.


Former CNN Medical Correspondent Andrew Holtz is an independent journalist based in Portland, Oregon. He’s been a long-time blog contributor and reviewer for HealthNewsReview.org. 

Comments (9)

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Andrew DePristo

January 12, 2016 at 7:14 am

As a U of Maryland PhD and a benefactor to that University, I was very angry with the press release and have expressed that to the highest levels of the university. Please keep on this story and let me and other readers know what happens.

    Andrew Holtz

    January 12, 2016 at 10:30 am

    Thank you for your comment, Dr. DePristo. You may also be interested in a new blog post by Earle Holland, former Assistant Vice President for Research Communications at Ohio State University: http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2016/01/how-universities-can-avoid-the-next-chocolate-milkconcussion-debacle/
    Also, Sarah Gantz at the Baltimore Business Journal just posted an article following up on the questions. The responses she got from people inside the MIPS program indicate serious gaps in their understanding of health research standards. She told me an expanded article will be on the cover of this Friday’s (1/15/16) print edition.

      Laurence Alter

      January 18, 2016 at 8:13 am

      “As a U. of Maryland Ph.D.” has NO meaning. Ph.D. in what area or field of knowledge? This is the standard in thinking among researchers and news organizations. They give their a) institutional affiliation [name] b) own name c) the city’s name AND not the subject of their doctoral research. They need to learn about priorities.
      Yours,
      Laurence

      Kevin Lomangino

      January 18, 2016 at 9:52 am

      I believe the commenter is referring to himself as a “U of Maryland PhD” in order to establish his ties to the University. He’s not commenting as an expert on the science and therefore it’s unnecessary and superfluous for him to go into the requested details.

      Best regards,

      Kevin

Bill

January 13, 2016 at 11:13 am

We need more of this.

Bill

January 13, 2016 at 3:20 pm

When I first read this excellent article by Mr. Holtz I thought, “Well, here’s another example of how industry has corrupted higher education. And chocolate milk – small potatoes compared to what the pharmaceutical industry has to encourage ‘proper’ outcomes.” Then I thought, “Wait: We’re talking about brain trauma in our young people, trauma that will recur and probably won’t ever go away. Why gloss over that with a glass of moo? We should not willfully put our children into a situation in which brain trauma is a possibility. Football? For what?” But the more I looked into the milk product the more I understood. The men behind the milk product have done their research on the quality of milk that different breeds yield, the importance of certain amino acids and other nutrients in exercise recovery, and so on. The chocolate contains magnesium, deficient in many people including young athletes. There’s been some research showing that some high school football players collapse and die during pre-season practice due to magnesium deficiency. And plain old milk has a history of supporting strength and weight gain in athletes who train for strength. Then there’s the marketing thing, and certainly the two men behind the product want people to find out about it and buy it.
So higher education has been corrupted by industry and letting your son play football does not demonstrate good parental judgement (my opinion) and Mr. Holtz’ article is really good reading, but the rationale behind drinking this milk product after intense exercise is pretty good. Beats the heck out of drinking a Coke, which might be a kid’s first choice .

    Gary Schwitzer

    January 13, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    Bill,

    Thanks for your notes on this.

    Of course what started all of this was a promotional PR news release that made claims that have not been substantiated. If you’re new to our website, that’s what we focus on: media messages that include claims about health care interventions. In that context, this was one of the most surprising and troubling news releases we’ve encountered. And now the University of Maryland has begun an internal review of “the conduct and administration of the project, the dissemination of the results and recommendations for institutional actions, according to a university spokeswoman.” http://www.bizjournals.com/baltimore/news/2016/01/13/university-of-maryland-launches-review-of.html

    So this is a much bigger issue than “the rationale.” It demands a release of the data. And that hasn’t happened.

    Writing PR news releases in the data-free zone is not the way science should be communicated to the public.

    Gary Schwitzer
    Publisher, HealthNewsReview.org

Tracey B.

January 16, 2016 at 4:29 pm

Might be something interesting to be found digging into the school district’s participation.
The same Clayton Wilcox was school superintendent Pinellas County, Florida, until he left mid-contract to take a job with Scholastic a year or two after the district approved an $800,000 contract for a reading program upgrade from the company. There was quite a bit of controversy during his time here and around his departure.

Mike P

January 23, 2016 at 5:29 am

I only have one question: who funded this study? Can’t U of MD publish even that much information?