Kellogg’s is a company that, in my view, makes a lot of quite-crappy food, particularly breakfast cereals made from highly processed grains with added sugar that are highly disruptive to blood sugar and may well pose hazards for health. Not that you’re likely to learn any of this from Kellogg’s itself, as it continues to market it wares as healthy and wholesome.
The Advertising Standards Authority has recently upheld a complaint regarding the way Kellogg’s advertising appeared to give sugar a clean of health. You can read the adjudication here.
The adjudication refers several times to a consultation report held by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (both part of the United Nations) in 1998. This report large exonerated sugar in terms of its impact on things like obesity and heart disease. However, should we be so trusting of the findings and conclusions of this report?
Back in 2004, the BBC aired a documentary which focused on the politics of sugar. It highlighted how the consultation was essentially hijacked by ‘scientists’ representing the food industry, and how the consultation secretly funded the consultation. Scientists were warned against saying anything negative about sugar too.
You can read a transcript of the show here. Here’s an excerpt from that transcript featuring Betsan Powys (reporter), Tim Lobstein (former director of the Food Commission in the UK), and two scientists (Professor Jim Mann and Professor John Cummings). The excerpt concludes with questions Ms Powys put to Hartwig de Haen (then assistant Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization) regarding funding of the consultation by industry funded bodies: the World Sugar Research Organisation and the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI – an American research group paid for by food companies which includes sugar manufacturer Tate and Lyle).
Dr TIM LOBSTEIN:
The industry’s tactic is to undermine all that evidence as much as possible. They will put up scientists who offer contrary evidence, they will undermine the credibility of a good scientist, they will fudge and offer contrary evidence to delay any decisions they’re making. They use a whole range of tactics and the result of that is that governments do back off and don’t make the strong statements that they should be making.
And while governments back off, we can get away with packing as much sugar as we like into every pot of fit and fruity. Denying evidence that sugar is harmful to health has always been at the heart of the industry’s defence. But for six years they relied on one crucial piece of positive science, a PR coup for sugar that stood unchallenged until now. We’ll find out how sugar interests secretly funded a key meeting of nutrition experts who met in Rome to establish definitive conclusions about the effect of sugar and other carbohydrates on our health, how those experts have no idea where the money was coming from, nor just what influence that money bought. The 1998 Expert Consultation on Carbohydrates was a joint venture. It was held by the World Health Organisation and the lead partner the Food and Agriculture Organisation, both part of United Nations.
We could see immediately after the consultation was undertaken that they were going to use this for PR purposes and they did. Huge press releases, stories in national newspapers came out supporting the sugar industry’s views based on what was supposed to be an independent review of the science.
And the outcome was a victory for sugar, a press release announcing: “Good news for kids, experts see no harm in sugar” was a dream caption. The headlines were glowing – THE TIMES A spoonful of sugar ‘helps healthy diet’ – to the astonishment of many of the experts themselves. They’d come to Rome not to exonerate sugar but to make vital decisions, like how much carbohydrate including sugar should we be eating.
JIM MANN (Professor of Human Nutrition University of Otago, New Zealand):
It really did matter. People wanted to know about sugar. How good was dietary fibre protecting against certain diseases, was sugar detrimental to human health. These were the kind of questions people really hoped to get out of the consultation.
Jim Mann, a high respected nutritionist and one of the experts involved felt from the start their integrity and independence was under pressure.
When we arrived some of us were summoned by one of the officials who was involved in the organisation of the consultation, and told very clearly that it would be inappropriate for us to say anything bad about sugar in relation to human health, that this would have profound political implications and that we simply should not do so.
I mean it was that clear?
It was unequivocally clear.
So you’d been told essentially to lay off sugar.
We had been told to lay off sugar, correct.
Another of the team invited to Rome sensed that the interests of science weren’t always the driving force. Whenever sugar was mentioned, Professor John Cummings recalls how one official, there to observe, tried to block the debate.
JOHN CUMMINGS (Professor of Gastroenterology Ninewells Hospital & Medical School, Dundee):
I was very surprised when he came immediately to the defence of sugar during the consultation. I couldn’t really understand why he did because normally these officials sit and listen and just sort of prod you when they think something needs doing but this was quite amazing.
What the experts at this critical meeting weren’t to know was that the sugar industry was paying for them to be in Rome. But Panorama discovered a series of documents which show exactly where the money came from. The World Sugar Research Organisation is funded by the sugar industry. It’s based in Reading and it paid $20,000 towards the consultation.
“WSRO will be pleased to contribute the sum of $20,000″ ILSI, the International Life Sciences Institute is an American research group paid for by food companies including Tate and Lyle. It put in $40,000.
“ILSI is willing to commit $40,000″ ILSI was also invited to suggest who might sit on the consultation – “Your suggestions for experts to be involved are most appreciated…” – it was ILSI who nominated the chairman months before the experts ever met.
What we’ve been shown is that the funding came from two other organisations, the World Sugar Research Organisation and ILSI.
Well there was no indication whatsoever that this was the case at the time, and my guess would be that I certainly, and probably my colleagues, would not have been prepared to be involved with such an activity had it been funded by these organisations.
So you wouldn’t have done it.
Under no circumstances.
Because I believe that it would be impossible to produce an unbiased report when the source of funding came from groups with clearly vested interests.
Unknown to the experts both those groups were shown and commented on the background papers, and even the draft agenda. Remarkably, behind this secret deal was the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s head of food and nutrition, John Lupien. They were invited to provide the names of experts who might take part in the consultation and they were very happy to do so. This is to the World Sugar Research Organisation asking them specifically for the names of experts. They were also sent the draft of the proposed agenda. Would you regard that as irregular?
I would regard it as irregular, totally inappropriate and incompatible with the way international agencies, particularly agencies of the United Nations should work.
And you were never told that this was the situation?
We were never told that this was the situation.
What is this? This is a letter from 1996 to Dr Lupien. “Pleased to contribute $20,000 to the programme.” I’m absolutely amazed at that. I’m totally amazed. That’s absolutely astonishing. I mean I just.. I can’t believe that would happen. I mean the sums of money are trivial as well. I mean why would FAO compromise its integrity for $40,000? It’s extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary. It’s not in anybody’s interests at all, not even in the sugar industry’s interests. It’s outrageous, I mean it’s absolutely appalling if that… I mean that is absolutely appalling.
John Cummings is equally adamant he wouldn’t have taken part had he known the deal to accept sugar money. Here we are: “The World Sugar Research Organisation have now received a number of names of experts” and he presumably forwards those to Dr Lupien.
They’re more than reeking here of influence. I mean this is full blown, full frontal attack, isn’t it. I mean it’s amazing, right from.. for the year before they were doing everything they could to ensure that they set the agenda.
And on that agenda in Rome was one crucial decision about what we eat. A guideline for governments around the world to consider. The experts were asked to agree on a clear recommendation of how much carbohydrate including sugar we should have in our daily diet. They decided it should be no less than 55% but no more than 75. They then left Rome. When the written report appeared the upper limit had gone. Jim Mann complained that a failure to mention a top limit on carbohydrate or any limit on sugar was open to misinterpretation and abuse.
I think it would clearly be to the advantage of the industry not to have an upper limit because increasingly the industry are producing food products which are reduced in fat, particularly saturated fat, and one way of compensating for fat is to increase the amount of sugar. So obviously if there is no upper limit of sugar, one can add sugar with impunity into a whole range of food products. I’m not very happy about this. I mean I feel that I and my colleagues have been severely compromised and I think I would want a very clear, not apology but explanation from FAO and an undertaking that the checks and balances are in place that this could never ever happen again .
The Food and Agriculture Organisation is seen as a neutral source of expertise for nations the world over, but what about the consultation it organised? The man in charge was in the dark too. Did you know that the money had come from he World Sugar Research Organisation and ILSI?
HARTWIG de HAEN (Assistant Director-General Food and Agriculture Organisation):
I don’t remember that. I don’t think I knew, and it hasn’t come to my attention, since it hasn’t been an issue of that importance.
Have you seen these documents because what they show is that it wasn’t just the funding that came from these two organisations, they nominated experts, they nominated the chairman, a key role. They got to see the background papers before the experts did, they got to comment on them, they got to comment on the agenda for the week. Did you know that?
HARTIWIG de HAEN:
No, I didn’t. If the funding was accepted together with influence of the choice of experts or of the wording of the report, then it’s unacceptable, that’s true, yes.
Not only was there influence. In an email to the international Life Sciences Institute, one of the groups providing the funds, the Food and Agriculture official makes clear his resolve to keep ILSI sweet. It says: “I’m aware that ILSI and others are somewhat anxious about the focus and ultimately the outcome of this consultation, and I’m hoping your input into this background paper will be reassuring.”
Well it can only mean one thing I think and that is the presupposition that there was going to be nothing adverse said about sugar. An entirely inappropriate statement, in fact inappropriate is probably too mild a word to use in that situation.
Let me read you one other sentence. This is from an FAO official to ILSI. “I’m aware that ILSI and others are somewhat anxious about the focus and ultimately the outcome of this consultation and I’m hoping that your (ILSI’s) input will be reassuring.” What does that mean to you?
HARTWIG de HAEN: Well of course this is not acceptable. But I am not sure where you quote from.
POWYS: Well I’m quoting from an email, here it is here. It’s from an official here whom we wont name but it’s to ILSI and there it is there. What does reassuring mean to you Doctor de Haen?
HARTWIG de HAEN: Reassuring sounds like a kind of promise that the outcome would not disappoint.
POWYS: And it didn’t. As we know, it got the industry the sort of headlines they could barely have hoped for.
Here’s the video of the whole programme if you’d prefer to watch:
Let’s not be in any doubt that food and the influence it has on health is a highly politicised issue. And don’t be in any doubt that even official bodies that we trust to tell us the truth can be corrupted at the highest level.