Kellogg’s found guilty of misleading us about sugar, but this is just the tip of the iceberg

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).

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.

Why not?

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?

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.

13 Responses to Kellogg’s found guilty of misleading us about sugar, but this is just the tip of the iceberg

  1. Michael Allen 8 March 2012 at 12:42 am #

    This is an absolutely disgusting story, but sadly it is nothing new to anyone old enough to have been following the saga for a few decades. Back in 1975, William Dufty (US) wrote Sugar Blues, which laid out most of the facts. And Professor John Yudkin (UK) issued several editions of Pure, White and Deadly (1972-86), which provided an academic perspective. Dufty was a journalist, Yudkin a respectable academic. Yudkin had his career seriously damaged by the sugar companies, and received, disgracefully, no support from his home university. All in all, this is a story which leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. No one who reads even a tenth of it can have any doubt that the big food companies have no conscience and no regard to anything except profit. You have been warned.

  2. Eddie Mitchell 8 March 2012 at 1:18 am #

    The George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs 1973.
    Peter Cleave testified to his belief that the problem extended to all refined carbohydrates. “I don’t hold the cholesterol view for a moment,” Cleave said, noting that mankind had been eating saturated fats for hundreds of thousands of years. “For a modern disease to be related to an old fashioned food is one of the most ludicrous things I have ever heard in my life,” Cleave said. “if anybody tells me that eating fat was the cause of coronary disease, I should look at them in amazement. But, when it comes to the dreadful sweet things that are served up … that is a very different proposition.” Yudkin blamed heart disease exclusively on sugar, and he was equally adamant that neither saturated fat nor cholesterol played a role. He explained how carbohydrates and specifically sugar in the diet could induce both diabetes and heart disease, through their effect on insulin secretion and the blood fats known as triglycerides. McGovern now struggled with the difficulty of getting some consensus on these matters.

    “Are you saying that you don’t think a high fat intake produces the high cholesterol count?” McGovern asked Yudkin. “Or are you even saying that a person with high cholesterol count is not in great danger?”

    “Well, I would like to exclude those rare people who have probably a genetic condition in which there is an extremely high cholesterol,” Yudkin responded. “If we are talking about the general population, I believe both those things that you say. I believe that decreasing the fat in the diet is not the best way of combating a high blood cholesterol …. I believe that the high blood cholesterol in itself has nothing whatever to do with heart disease.”

    “That is exactly opposite what my doctor told me,” said McGovern.

    Extract taken from the brilliant book ‘The Diet Delusion’ by Gary Taubes page 123 a must read for anyone with an interest in weight loss and controlling diabetes.

  3. Dan Moffett 8 March 2012 at 5:00 am #

    It’s not our fault we are so fat. We’ve been lied to. I’ve lost 155 pounds in the past 24 months by putting out he sugars and wheat. I recommend you read a life changing book called “Wheat Belly” by Dr. William Davis.

  4. PhilT 8 March 2012 at 2:52 pm #

    Just as there are vested interests in the sugar industry there are vehement and fanatical anti-sugar lobbyists who resort to similar tactics, at least the former have a transparent motive – profit.

    The UK’s obesity trend is way steeper than the trend in its per capita sugar consumption, which I suspect is fairly flat if not declining, so I think we do well to avoid molecular discrimination between sucrose and starch as both are carbohydrates and “low sugar” products are inevitably higher starch – especially in breakfast cereals – with consequently the same calories and blood sugar impact.

  5. Eddie Mitchell 9 March 2012 at 1:07 am #

    “Just as there are vested interests in the sugar industry there are vehement and fanatical anti-sugar lobbyists who resort to similar tactics, at least the former have a transparent motive – profit”

    Columbian drug cartels have a transparent motive – profit. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Just a thought.

  6. William L. Wilson, M.D. 9 March 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    This reminds me of where we were with the tobacco industry when I started practicing medicine. Physicians were smoking in the hospital while the lobbyists for big tobacco were reassuring the public that cigarette smoking is harmless. We now know that both tobacco and sugar are potent chronic toxins.

    John Wayne smoked for years, always riding off into the sunset on his horse with a pretty woman at his side—that is until the wheels fell off. We see the same thing with our patients who consume the deadly combination of sugar and high glycemic carbohydrates found in food like breakfast cereals. They seem fine for decades until they fall off a cliff and turn into metabolic time bombs.

    What’s even worse, the combination of excessive fructose from sugar and HFCS and high glycemic carbohydrates appears to trigger a chronic brain disorder with a long list of brain dysfunction symptoms. We now call this disease Carbohydrate Associated Reversible Brain syndrome or CARB syndrome. Because the brain plays a key role in auto-regulating fat stores, patients with CARB syndrome will store extra fat at virtually any caloric intake.

    We now believe that CARB syndrome is driving the increase in depression, ADHD, PTSD, anxiety disorders, fibromyalgia, eating disorders, bipolar II, obsessive compulsive disorder, irritable bowel syndrome and other brain conditions.

    So what’s the take home message? If you value your health and brain function, cut out sugar, HFCS and high glycemic carbohydrates.

  7. Debra 9 March 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    And now the high fructose corn syrup people are running television ads in the US claiming safety of their wares as well. I like how they are allowed to do this with a product that has issues, allowed by the FDA.

  8. Mick Shaw 9 March 2012 at 9:52 pm #

    Totally agree with PhilT and it’s a point that Dr John has made many times before. It’s not just sugar that’s the problem, refined carbs can be more effective at putting glucose in your bloodstream than sucrose. That wonderful Kelloggs product, Cornflakes, (Oh so low in sugar) has a GI significantly higher than sucrose. When you put sugar on your Cornflakes, weight for weight, you are actually reducing its glycaemic load!!!
    For more of the same see

  9. Peggy Holloway 11 March 2012 at 6:34 pm #

    “We now believe that CARB syndrome is driving the increase in depression, ADHD, PTSD, anxiety disorders, fibromyalgia, eating disorders, bipolar II, obsessive compulsive disorder, irritable bowel syndrome and other brain conditions”.
    I have family members (including myself) who suffered most of the above list on our low-fat, high-carb diets that were the medical mantra of the 1970’s – 90’s. Not all of us had weight issues, but my daughter weighed 320 pounds at age 16. All of us have reversed these issues on low-carb/paleo diets.

  10. Ronnie Plant 12 March 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    In my recent book ‘SELLING SICKNESS!’, sub titled How To Take Control Of Your Own Health, I have set out how sugar is evil. I do’nt say that it kills but it certainly leads to an early grave. Health-wise it is as bad as or worse than smoking. As an 84 years young man I learned of the dangers of sugar 50 years ago when diagnosed with diabetes. This my Doctor relative and myself were able to reverse, as can be done now. For the next 50 years of my life much time has been devoted to the study of sugar and sugars. It has been described as ‘SNOW WHITE AND DEADLY. This is a true description

  11. Merly Hartnett 19 March 2012 at 1:33 am #

    “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.”

    For many including I were ignorant. It’s so important that people get educated. Thank you for sharing. I went to see a talk by Philip Day who recommended your site. I’m glad I checked it out.

  12. Parminter 4 May 2012 at 11:11 pm #

    I think it is desperately important that the world understands that multinational corporations exist to generate the highest possible profit for shareholders, and almost all of them will do anything necessary to achieve this. Corporations have no moral conscience whatsoever. The real product of Kelloggs and its ilk is Marketing and Advertising of a devilishly high and manipulative order, which is beyond most of us to fathom. So start with the assumption that they are amoral and feel absolutely no sense of obligation to the consumer.


  1. Paleo Diet News: Science, Money and Bias - Paleo Diet, recipes, articles, news, videos | Paleo Diet, recipes, articles, news, videos - 14 December 2013

    […] and bias equation) – here’s a good example of how profit can get in the way of honesty: Kellogg’s found guilty of misleading us about sugar, but it’s just the tip of the iceber….  In this article, Dr. Briffa exposes what happens when scientists representing the food industry […]

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