The sugar corps: scientists for sale?

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An ongoing discussion of Big Sugar and its spending in academia 

24 January 2016: BBC1’s The Big Questions held a live debate in Edinburgh on sugar and health. During it I stated that Professor Mike Lean, chair of human nutrition at Glasgow University, was funded by Coca-Cola for some of his research. He objected.

I based my assertion on a 2012 Coca-Cola-funded study of orange juice polyphenols done at Glasgow, for which Mike Lean was listed as “main contact”. The study led to a 2014 paper published in America, on which Mike Lean is one of nine authors. Three of them are Coca-Cola-funded scientists and/or employees, including Professor Alan Crozier. Materials for the research were also provided by Coca-Cola.

However Mike Lean says that no funds for the study went to him: he has never benefited, personally or in his work, from Coca-Cola funding and he would refuse such funds. Given his proven record of advocacy against sugary drinks marketing and his other public stances, I accept that assurance. Glasgow University has confirmed that Mike Lean has not had money from Coca-Cola for his research. Further, he tells me he is in favour of a tax on sugary drinks.

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Rita Ora poses to celebrate 100 years of the hourglass Coca-Cola bottle

British universities, not least Glasgow, have benefited hugely from research investment by the big food and drink corporations. Professor Alan Crozier, Mike Lean’s former Glasgow colleague, co-author with him on 30 papers, has had “almost  £3m” (boasts the university) from Coca-Cola, Nestle and other food and drink corporations. Crozier’s research is largely into soft drinks, including tea, coffee and fruit juices.

 

Some of the millions Coca-Cola and other corporations spend in academia is of course to try and sway arguments about links between their products and public health problems – see last year’s Times investigations below. As pressure for a tax on sugary drinks to fund health education has grown in the past years, so has the money on offer. In the States it is claimed that the soda industry has spent $106m in recent years merely in lobbying against proposed taxes on sugary drinks.

Some scientists, not least in nutrition, appear to believe they are are immune from influence by their sponsors. They are not: a recent meta-analysis showed that when industry funds research into sugar and obesity it is much more likely to find no link between the two than is independent or government-funded research.

  • “Scientists for sale!” My 2014 Daily Mail article on links between Big Sugar and the scientists who were then on the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition.

 

22 January 2016: Food Standards Scotland – a government agency  – comes out for a sugary drinks tax, and a range of other measures. (Here is a list of the FSS’s latest recommendations on health and diet). The Times (£) – consistently he best national on the issue – singles out the FSS charge that sugar removed from drinks is being “recycled” into foods.

 

20 January 2016: Meeting in Edinburgh of chefs, food journalists and policy people to discuss a sugary drinks tax for Scotland, organised by Source. It was largely in favour, with the tax seen as one in a range of interventions, as laid out by the lobbying coalition led by Sustain and British Heart Foundation. Action on marketing frauds, targeting of children and transparency over science could be part of it. Nicely summed up here.

I spoke about the countries around the world that have introduced sugar taxes. It will be years before any link with health improvements can be proved, but there is new evidence of the success of the Mexican tax in reducing consumption. Here’s the Food Research Network’s useful run-down of current state of play, stated aims of the taxes, and lobbying positions in countries round the world.

 

10 December 2015: Alexi Mostrous’s ongoing investigation in The Times (£) states that Coca-Cola has spent £10m in five years on British scientists largely to help counter claims of links between sugar and obesity.

The advisers include Stuart Biddle, of Loughborough University, who was chairman of a health department group on obesity in 2010; Alan Boobis, a director at Public Health England, who stopped receiving funding in 2013; Ken Fox, who advised the government on obesity in 2009; and Carrie Ruxton, now on the board of Food Standards Scotland. In 2010 Dr Ruxton co-wrote a study sponsored by the UK Sugar Bureau, an industry group, that found no proven association between sugar intake and obesity. On her website she states separately: “When I correlated sugar consumption with obesity levels, there didn’t appear to be any relationship.”

The data reveal that Coca-Cola paid £8.9 million to organisations including £224,769 to the British Nutrition Foundation, £67,300 to the National Obesity Forum, £30,000 to the Science Media Centre, which promotes the “voices and views of the UK scientific community to the news media”, and £80,000 to ukactive, which promotes physical activity. The list does not include €6.6 million (£4.8 million) paid to the European Hydration Institute, a research foundation which has recommended that people consume soft drinks of the sort the company sells, because its headquarters are in Spain.

 

9 October 2015: “Giants of the health lobby funded by Coca-Cola”. Gripping investigation in the Times (£) into Coca-Cola’s funding of the European Hydration Institute and Loughborough University’s Ron Maughan.

In April, a Loughborough University study made headlines around the world with a surprising conclusion: that not drinking enough fluids before driving was as dangerous, in some circumstances, as driving while drunk.

Press coverage quoted Ron Maughan, professor of sport and exercise nutrition, who warned that dehydration was an “unrecognised danger” for drivers. Most stories failed to mention that the study was funded by the European Hydration Institute (EHI), a non-profit body set up to promote the benefits of hydration.

None disclosed that the EHI was funded to the tune of €6.6 million by Coca-Cola.

 

21 January 2014: “Top scientists for sale!” My comment piece in the Daily Mail on the sugar lobby, bought science and corporate capture of government advisors.

In this I mention some academic research on scientists in these fields with apparent conflicts of interest. It shows they tend to produce biased research – but you may judge this simplistic. Here are the two papers:

1.   Bes-Rastrollo M, Schulze MB, Ruiz-Canela M, Martinez-Gonzalez MA (2013) Financial Conflicts of Interest and Reporting Bias Regarding the Association between Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews. PLoS Med 10(12): e1001578. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001578. Read it here.

2.      Lesser LI, Ebbeling CB, Goozner M, Wypij D, Ludwig DS (2007) Relationship between funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles. PLoS Med 4(1): e5. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040005.  Read it here

Sugar watchdog works for Coca-Cola and Mars
Published 19 January 2014, copyright Sunday Times, UK . Original here

ONE of the country’s leading nutritional experts, tasked by the government with proposing new limits for the nation’s sugar consumption, is working as a paid adviser to Coca-Cola and Mars.

Professor Ian Macdonald chairs a government panel examining the health impact of sugar consumption, amid growing concern that excessive amounts in food are fuelling the obesity epidemic.

It will recommend to the government later this year what level of sugar in our diet is healthy, helping to frame the national guidance.

However, the Nottingham University scientist confirmed last week that he provided monthly advice to Mars “at board level” and also advised Coca-Cola on diet, obesity and exercise. He said the annual payment of £6,100 from Coca-Cola went into his personal income — it “goes into [my] tax return” — while the larger payment from Mars helped to fund his university research.

The disclosure of his links to the companies, in an investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches to be shown tomorrow, prompted demands this weekend that Macdonald should resign from the chairmanship of the panel because of the “unacceptable” conflict of interests.

Simon Capewell, a Liverpool University professor and founding member of the Action on Sugar campaign, said Macdonald’s role was untenable. “I am shocked,” he said. “This is a scandal for public health. It’s like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank. It’s clearly an outrageous conflict of interest.

“If Ian Macdonald doesn’t step down [from the panel], there will be real concerns that their recommendations will be prejudiced by commercial factors rather than scientific public health priorities.”

It will be the second time that Macdonald’s interests have drawn him into controversy. Macdonald stood down from a paid advisory role with Coca-Cola and Mars in 2009 after concerns were raised with health officials about his potential conflict of interest.

Dispatches has, however, established that he started working for the two companies again in 2012 after successfully seeking approval from officials.

Macdonald said: “I do understand people saying, ‘You are so close to those companies you should not have anything to do with gathering the evidence for UK policy to be decided’. I just disagree.”

MacDonald, who sits on the Coca-Cola European Scientific Advisory Council and the Mars Scientific Advisory Council, said he believed it was important to have a dialogue with industry. He said he never discussed any aspect of his government work on sugar with Coca-Cola and Mars.

The details of Macdonald’s close links to the food industry have emerged after a campaign was launched this month by Action on Sugar which claimed sugar was the “new tobacco”.

Macdonald is known to be sceptical of some of the claims made by the anti-sugar lobby. He says the evidence does not support the claim that fructose has a specific and adverse impact on health.

His work for the food industry and the work of his panel is now likely to come under close scrutiny. Macdonald is chairman of the carbohydrate working group, which is part of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN). It was requested nearly six years ago to “provide clarification of the relationship between dietary carbohydrate and health and make public health recommendations”.

Under current government recommendations, added sugars should comprise no more than 11% of total energy consumption. Some experts, however, believe this upper limit should be reduced significantly.

Five members of Macdonald’s eight-strong panel disclosed links to the food industry in the most recent register of interests published in the 2012 annual report.

The recommendations of Macdonald’s panel need to be approved by the SACN and will then be published for consultation. The Department of Health will then review the recommendations and decide on any changes in policy.

A spokesman for Public Health England said: “Professor Ian Macdonald has fully declared his interests in accordance with the code of practice for scientific advisory committees guidance.”

The spokesman said that throughout the deliberation on carbohydrates and health there had been processes in place to ensure “the transparency and integrity” of the review. The work was overseen by independent experts and government officials.

Are “superfruits” a scam? A potato might do the same job at a tenth the price…

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Pomegranate – lots of fibre, if you can eat all those seeds.

30 December 2013: fruit sold on health promises, my story published in the UK’s Daily Mail.

Believe the hype and they’ll solve all your health issues.  They are the natural solution for everything from cancer, heart disease and dementia through to ageing skin, poor eyesight and interrupted sleep. No wonder “superfruits” now pop up everywhere: in cereal, desserts, snack bars, breakfast juice, desserts, face cream – even designer gin.

But though goji berries, acai juice, pomegranates and cranberries often claim their healing properties are rooted in ancient medicine, the explosion in their use is a very modern phenomenon.

Marketing gurus in the United States invented the word less than a decade ago, to profit from the boom in so-called “functional foods” – the industry’s term for staples – like yoghourt or snack bars –  that can be sold at a premium by pushing health benefits.

The labelling tactic worked. Superfruit products worth hundreds of millions of pounds are now sold in Britain every year. The global market in superfruit juices alone will be worth over £6bn by 2017, according to food market analysts Euromonitor .

As you’d expect, the fruit and health foods industries have gone bananas (rich in potassium and fibre, these might be a superfruit if they weren’t so old-fashioned). Since there’s no regulation or even definition of the term, anything you like can be a superfruit – and millions can be made if you get the marketing right.

In Britain, two out of three new juice products launched last year claimed to contain superfruit, and new ones are being announced every week. A big launch in 2011 was Cherrygood, a fruit juice made in part from an imported American cherry supposedly very high in antioxidants. One glass will give “the equivalent health benefits of around 20 portions of fruit and vegetables”. Though the company offers no proof of that extraordinary boast, Cherrygood has been a hit, according to the food analyst agencies, and by 2013 all the supermarkets and health stores were stocking it.

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