Let me be very clear upfront. We all have to make a living. Only the government can forcibly extract money to keep itself going. The rest of us need to exchange goods or services in return for money. A business which employs people needs to do the same otherwise it goes broke and people lose their jobs.
I have been a critic of some of the ways the pharmaceutical industry conducts itself. Disease mongering where normal human emotion or physiology is reclassified as a disease needing treatment is a great way to sell more product. However, it is the legitimate commercial role of these companies to sell products and make a profit.
The big problem has been the public health people, academics and those sitting on review panels and guideline setting committees who take money from industry which they do not declare. They create the appearance of independence which is then used by companies. Without the third party “credibility” this would be much harder to have claims believed.
The food industry is now playing the same game. Like big pharma they have a legitimate interest in selling products. Endorsement by health practitioners and foundations can give foods a health halo and increase sales. The food industry learned in the 1980’s when the fat is bad mantra started that low-fat foods would sell because they were perceived as healthy. The fact that they were not healthy was not a bother to them or their boosters in public health (who to be fair did have less evidence than today that these claims were misguided).
The Heart Foundation and Dietician’s association even promote the dollar value of “partnerships” with them to marketers on their websites.
The food industry has learned from the pharmaceutical industry. Find like-minded academics and public health people and pay them to do a report or study. The pharmaceutical industry knows before it asks doctors to speak, what they are going to say. This neatly gets around the issue of any coercion.
As I wrote last week, Kellogg’s commissioned a report on the role of grains in the diet. They paid for the report. The report was done by Nutrition Research Australia (NRA). The people behind this are fully supportive of the role of grains so Kellogg’s could have confidence in the final report with no need to, in any way influence its production.
According to the NRA website it provides “Quality outcomes, focussed research in a timely manner”. It notes that its founder a Dr Flávia-Fayet Moore is a registered nutritionist and accredited practicing dietician. Good for her. This line of work will be far more profitable than consulting with patients all day.
It would appear that NRA produces the outcomes that those who engage it like. Previous research found that eating breakfast cereal was important for children. This was commissioned by Nestle and Cereal partners worldwide. Nestle and Uncle Tobys supported a paper on the snack habits of children. One wonders if a carrot stick was as good as a muesli bar? Nestle also commissioned this one on milk and Milo drink.
The Australian Breakfast Cereal Manufacturers forum provided a research grant for this work which aims to gloss over the sugar content in breakfast cereal. Apparently, those who eat breakfast cereal have the lowest “added sugar” intake. Given the sugar content of these products there is no need to add any.
The Kellogg’s report formed the basis of a press release by the assistant health minister who also features in a video which is on the website grainfibre4health.com.au. The owner of the domain is Kellogg’s and although their logo appears on the home page as having commissioned the report there is nothing to suggest that they totally control the site. It appears independent. The video featuring a minister would (in my opinion wrongly) give it credibility.
But even this was not enough. The impressively named International Carbohydrate Quality Consortium weighed in too. News.com.au reports that according to Jennie Brand Miller from the University of Sydney there is a “noisy group” trying to convince people to cut down on carbohydrates.
‘In a bid to increase the consumption of whole grains, the International Carbohydrate Quality Consortium (ICQC) – a group of about 30 nutrition academics, epidemiologists and scientists – has released a consensus report on their health benefits” notes the same article.
ICQC had a nice meeting in Italy in September. Amongst their sponsors are Nestle, Barilla, General Mills, and the European Fruit Juice Association.
If Kellogg’s or Nestle or any food maker came out and made claims about their products we would see that as part of a marketing push. Fair enough. The information would be seen as advertising. This does not make it false but does mean we may be more questioning.
When public health academics, researchers and impressively named groups make claims we assume that they are experts who know what they are talking about. When they are effectively indirectly paid spruikers there is a problem. That the financial ties are not openly disclosed is a bigger problem.
In contrast to all this hyperbole the independent Cochrane Collaboration found “There is insufficient evidence from randomised controlled trials to date to recommend consumption of whole grain diets to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, or lower blood cholesterol, or blood pressure”. It found that trials were of poor quality, small size and at high risk of bias.
The noisy group are those people who have found that eating too much refined carbohydrate leads to obesity, type two diabetes and a raft of other health issues all of which have increased since our intake of refined carbohydrates increased in the 1980’s.
This noisy group comprises citizens, and renegade doctors and dieticians who do not receive payment from processed food manufacturers.
They are therefore a threat to industry and those on the gravy train. The approach therefore is to attempt to discredit critics and shut them down. We have seen this in Australia and South Africa.
As I stated at the outset, food manufacturers have a right to make food (healthy or not) and earn a profit by doing so. Industry moves where the public is going. Brokers have been recommending companies which make full fat products because that is where the public is heading. Smart companies will change tack. There is already evidence of this.
Still, they are attempting to protect their current market. This is entirely legitimate. What is not legitimate is for dieticians, doctors, public health, and foundations to receive monies and then promote the message of the processed food manufacturers without declaring their vested interests.
The internet is very democratising. This information is out there hiding in full view. A day of reckoning is coming.
This article first appeared here.