Govt. scientific advisors funded by food and drinks industry
Sugar is on everybody’s lips – it’s in almost everything we eat and drink and giving it up is hard.
A growing number of health experts are calling for the government to act to cut down the hidden sugar in our diets, claiming it’s associated with a host of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, which are costing the NHS billions of pounds a year.
An investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches, airing tonight, reveals that scientists advising health ministers on how much sugar should be in our diet are being funded by chocolate, ice-cream and fizzy drink companies as well as a lobby group for the sugar industry.
The revelation will raise more questions on whether policy makers are too close to the food industry.
Currently health ministers are waiting for a report on sugar by its scientific advisory committee on nutrition. This will be the first report on sugar in more than 20 years and will be critical in deciding how much sugar will be in our diets.
The chief scientist looking at the sugar question is Professor Ian MacDonald of Nottingham University, who is chairing a group investigating carbohydrates.
Channel 4 Dispatches has discovered that since 2012 he has resumed working for two food and drink giants. He is sits on two advisory boards for Coca Cola and one for Mars. He also receives funding from Unilever which is the world’s largest ice-cream manufacturer.
In an interview with Channel 4 Dispatches, Professor MacDonald says he does not get the money himself but that it goes to the university for research. He said his resumption work for Coca Cola and Mars had been approved at the “highest level” and that he “cannot be bought off”. He declined to say how much the companies paid but said it was not “insignificant”. (Full quotes available below)
Nottingham University where Professor Ian MacDonald works has received more than £1m in the last 3 years from the food industry, including £300,000 from Mars.
It has also emerged that four of the other seven members of Professor MacDonald’s committee advising ministers on sugar receive funds from the food or sugar industry.
One is a consultant to the world’s largest cocoa manufacturers, Barry Callebaut, and two others receive funding directly from sugar lobbyists, Sugar Nutrition. All these interests along with Professor MacDonald’s were properly declared to the committee.
The Department of Health told the programme: “Professor Ian MacDonald has fully declared his conflicts of interest in accordance with the Code of Practice. He is a highly respected figure within the public health community and has made a valuable contribution to research into obesity and nutrition”.
KEY FACTS ABOUT SUGAR, OBESITY AND TYPE 2 DIABETES:
· The British are now the fattest people in Europe and we are getting fatter
· In the UK more than 60% of adults and 30% of children are either obese or overweight
· In the UK an adult consumes an average of 36Kg of sugar a year - The vast majority of it is hidden in the food we eat and what we drink.
· In the UK more than 3.5 million of us are thought to have type 2 diabetes - and the numbers are growing fast
· It costs the NHS £8.8 billion a year, and it is set to rise to £15 billion by 2035
Are You Addicted to Sugar? – Channel 4 Dispatches, on Monday 20th January at 8pm
Notes to Editor
Key Sections of the interview with Professor McDonald
Dispatches reporter Antony Barnett (AB): “You are in a key position, a key government advisory committee “
Professor Ian MacDonald (PIM): “Yeah”
AB: “And you yourself have received funding from Coca Cola and Mars.”
PIM: And Unilever.
AB: “People will say look, that can’t be right. // how can you be advising the government on obesity and sugar when you’re also taking funds from companies that want us to have more sugar.”
PIM: “You’re quite right you look at the paper and say he does this this and this he must be biased. Now that’s not a fair conclusion to draw. You say there’s a potential for bias or a potential for conflict.”
AB: “And do you get paid by Coca Cola and Mars?”
PIM: “Coca Cola there’s a small honorarium that I receive. The Mars honorarium comes into the university and I pay for research costs with it and so on.”
AB: “Can you tell us how much that is?”
PIM: “All I would say is that the Mars honorarium is not a trivial amount of money and I would actually feel embarrassed if I took it so I don’t take it. “
AB: “Now I had a look before we came, and there are, eight members of the Carbohydrates Working Group –//. Dr. David Mela – now he works for Unilever.”
PIM: “He works for Unilever, but he’s not there.”
AB: “Pot Noodles, Ice Cream – they are the world’s largest ice-cream, Unilever, I’ve discovered.”
PIM: “That’s right, David and I are not the only people on the committee.”
AB: “Another Professor //and he’s been a consultant for Barry Callebaut.”
AB: “I’d never heard of it but it’s the world’s largest chocolate manufacturer.”
PIM: “Yeah cocoa manufacturer.”
AB: ”And then I’ve got here another Professor who also receives funding from // Unilever, and who also gets funding from the Sugar Bureau, which is the lobby of the sugar industry.”
AB: “ Another Professor here who also gets research funding from Unilever and funding from Sugar Nutrition, so a quick count would say, one, two, three, at least half, actually more than half of the members of the carbohydrates working group receive funding from chocolate, ice-cream and the sugar industries.”
PIM: “ Yep – all declared.”
AB: “All declared. // but can the public have confidence that your report is going to balanced?”
PIM: “I believe so, yep,…”
PIM: “I think the public has an absolute right to know this information, but they also need to be aware of the basis on which university research is funded – it’s what’s called a mixed portfolio of funding from government sources, from charities and from industry.”
PIM: “The question is an important to raise about the potential bias and the potential conflict, all I would say is that the structure that is in place for this committee would make it very difficult for the group of people you just described to sort of have private meetings and decide what’s going to happen,”
AB: “But it somehow affects the appearance because there is a lot of money behind the scenes.”
PIM: “Erm, all I would say to people is that they need to come and see me and speak to me, and I am not to be bought off by anybody.”