Sugar is in the news again. The BMJ has published an article “Sugar: spinning a web of influence“, which talks about how public health scientists are heavily involved (and suggests influenced) by the sugar industry.
Sugar-based processed foods and the marketing of them are at the center of the obesity crisis, however, the companies that make these foods have been providing research grants, consultancy fees and other funding for health research.
Scientists working for government the funded organisations the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research unit at Cambridge, have been largely sponsored by the food industry for decades. These very scientists have been given the task of investigating reducing health problems caused by fast food.
For over ten years these scientists have been recieving funding from companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, Weight Watchers International, NutriLicious, Sainsbury’s, W K Kellogg Institute, and GlaxoSmithKline.
£2.5 billion in funds
The Human Nutrition Research unit has been receiving over a quarter of a million pounds (about $380,000) in funding every year for the past decade from food companies.
The BMJ reported that scientists were “encouraged to work closely with the private sector, including the pharmaceutical and food industries” to allow “the more rapid transfer of the best ideas into new interventions, the development of solutions that will benefit the public, and improvement on the return of the MRC’s investment in medical research.”
There are many other similar findings detailed within the BMJ report that show how the food industry is not only funding but steering the work done by public health scientists.
However, Ian Macdonald, chair of the carbohydrates working group, and also professor of metabolic physiology at the University of Nottingham, disagrees with the findings, saying: “The anti-camp would say, well, they should just stop making those things, but it’s a bit more complicated than that,” and then added, “It isn’t just fatty foods, sugary drinks, confectionery that are contributing, it’s a combination of lots and lots of things, and just taking one thing out of the market is not going to solve the problem. Making changes to the products they make, changing the way they communicate with people, and getting them to demonstrate role model examples to other components of the food industry is likely to be much more effective.”
While this is very true, the aggressive marketing tactics used by the very lucrative food and drink industry does appear to be a key reason why so many people are obese today.
The BBC has reported this too. They spoke to Prof Simon Capewell, from the University of Liverpool and an adviser for the group Action on Sugar, told the BBC: “I was shocked, quite honestly; this is heart-breaking news and basically it appears a lot of people have been seriously misled.”
Capewell went on to talk about the inherent conflicts of interest between making profit and public health.
How did this happen?
Before the Second World War very few people were obese. One of the outcomes of the war was the realization by government that food production was vital to the welfare of a country. The result was the development of the food industry.
For example, the UK government was so concerned that if there was another world war the UK’s sugar supplies from America would be cut off, it decided that the UK should develop its own sugar industry.
The answer was to invite Stephen Fry’s grandfather to set up a sugar beet factory. Martin Neumann traveled from Slovakia to help the UK develop its sugar beet industry. He was already an advisor for Europe’s sugar beet factory. Until this time the UK relied on sugar sourced from cane, which only grows in tropical areas.
The UK sugar beet industry was a huge success and soon Britain was producing more sugar than it could consume. What to do with it? Make food!
OK, this is a simplified history, but the same problem can be seen in America and other countries that started to produce sugar. Sugar, once processed in a factory, is a very cheap form of food energy that can be added to just about anything, and it tastes great. The obesity crisis was born.
In the BBC News television report today (12 Feb 2015) the reporter talked of a war between the sugar industry and health scientists. Many amateur nutritionists and fitness instructors have been talking about the problems of sugar for decades, but only now are we started to really understand how the problem started and why it is so hard to reverse.
It has been MotleyHealth’s belief since it was founded that the only way to beat obesity is through a combination of education and government intervention. There is a war brewing, but it is hard to see how science can be victorious against the commercial giants.