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The head of the British Nutrition Foundation responds to my blog post on bread, and I have a few words for her too

Posted Sep 26 2012 2:20pm

Last week one of my blog posts focused on a widely reported ‘news’ story which concerned the supposed value of bread in the diet. These reports appear to have followed the publication of an article in the Nutrition Bulletin, the ‘journal’ of an organisation called the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF). I admitted at the time that I hadn’t read the article and was basing my comments on the news pieces and abstract. Subsequently, Professor Judy Buttriss, Director General of the BNF, left the following comment on my site:

Dr Briffa refers to a review compiled by Dr Aine O’Connor of the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), which was peer reviewed and published in Nutrition Bulletin this year. The review references a total of 83 published scientific research papers, drawing conclusions from their combined findings. Dr Briffa acknowledged that he has not, himself, read the review and BNF would urge him to do so.

Contrary to Dr Briffa’s views, the Foundation provides information about its diverse sources of funding and indeed its governance – details are contained in its Annual Reports which are available online: http://www.nutrition.org.uk.

BNF does not endorse companies or brands. It works with a broad range of organisations in both the public and private sectors, that share an interest in communication of evidence-based nutrition information, to inform decisions and policies on nutrition for public health benefit. Again details are publicly available in its Annual Reports.

In Dr O’Connor’s review, ‘An overview of the role of bread in the UK diet’, BNF clearly refers to funding as follows: The British Nutrition Foundation is grateful to Warburtons for financially supporting time spent on the preparation of this review. However, the views expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and Warburtons has not been involved in writing or shaping any of the contents.

Prof Judy Buttriss
Director General
British Nutrition Foundation

In a personal email to me, she sent a similar message but also attached a copy of the article which appeared in the Nutrition Bulletin. Here, again, she urged me to read the article. I’m glad I did. What I found was much worse than I ever imagined…

Professor Buttriss tells us that the review references “83 published scientific papers”. The article does have 83 references, but several of these are not what we regarded as ‘published scientific papers’. Some, for example, are government-derived data on food intakes in the UK, and one is a book. This may seem picky, but what it suggests to me that while I may not have read the article prior to my blog post last week, perhaps Professor Buttriss had not read the paper in its entirely either.

Professor Buttriss also draws our attention to the fact that the article is peer-reviewed. Peer review is a process by which suitably experience/qualified individuals read and assess articles prior to publication. However, in the very first paragraph of the article we see these lines:

Since 1942, all UK wheat flour except wholemeal flour has been fortified with calcium carbonate (to provide calcium at a time when dairy products were rationed and the phytate content of flour was high; impeding calcium absorption) and thiamine to white flour. Since 1953, thiamine, niacin and iron have been restored to white flour (to ensure the micronutrient composition of white flour closely resembles wholemeal flour) and millers were freed from producing only high extraction flour.

The first sentence does not seem properly constructed, and the second makes reference to thiamine being added to flour in 1953 even through the previous sentence states that its addition started in 1942. I’m wondering what sort of a job the reviewers were doing. Did all of them miss these errors so early on in the article? And this is before we even get on to the subject of the (I think) bias inherent in the article (see below).

Professor Buttriss tells us that the BNF’s ‘diverse sources of funding’ which can be found in its annual reports. She links to the BNF site, but not the part of it that contains the relevant information. This suggests to me that she is perhaps less keen to have people actually accessing this information than she would like to appear. But I might be wrong.

She starts the paragraph by saying: “Contrary to Dr Briffa’s views, the Foundation provides information about its diverse sources of funding and indeed its governance…”

I suppose she’s referring to this line in my blog post: “I suppose it should not go unremarked that the British Nutrition Foundation is supported by various factions within the food industry, and this organisation is sometimes less than transparent about where it gets its money from and the obvious conflicts of interest here.” But after this comment I linked to this article  in the Independent newspaper which contains the following passage:

However, the organisation’s 39 members, which contribute to its funding, include – beside the Government, the EU – Cadbury, Kellogg’s, Northern Foods, McDonald’s, PizzaExpress, the main supermarket chains except Tesco, and producer bodies such as the Potato Council. The chairman of its board of trustees, Paul Hebblethwaite, is also chairman of the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Trade Association.

Critics say the foundation’s dependence on the food industry is reflected in its support for the views promoted by industry and that it is not fully transparent about its funding.

The foundation is holding a conference next month on the science of low-calorie sweeteners, which aims to “separate fact from fiction”. The web page for the event says “intense sweeteners have been available as a means of reducing sugar intake for more than a century” but the perceptions of them “can be somewhat negative”. The conference aims to “explore the facts behind the stories and see where low-calorie sweeteners fit into today’s foodscape.”

The web page doesn’t say, though the information is available elsewhere on the website, that the foundation is financially supported by Tate & Lyle, British Sugar, Ajinomoto (maker of AminoSweet), and McNeil Consumer Nutritionals (maker of Splenda).

A foundation press release in February said people could shake off the winter blues by drinking more fluids. It didn’t say that its donors include Danone (producer of Evian, Volvic, and Badoit), Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Innocent, Twinings, Nestlé, and various yoghurt drink manufacturers. A footnote mentions the food industry as one of the foundation’s funding sources.

Joe Harvey of the Health Education Trust, a charity promoting health education for young people, said: “Organisations like the British Nutrition Foundation which want to be seen as offering independent advice should avoid donations from the food industry or be much more up front about them so the public are aware of the involvement. It is naive to take industry money and believe there is no quid pro quo.”

I feel there’s a clear conflict of interest with the BNF, and that concerns about transparency are legitimate, and it seems I’m not the only one. Perhaps Professor Buttriss would care to comment.

Professor Buttriss does leave the best for last, when she draws our attention to the fact that Warburtons “financially [supported] time spent on the preparation of the review.” So, let’s not mince our words and tell it straight: A bread manufacturer has funded a review which lauds the supposed nutritional attributes of bread. This, despite the fact that, as I stated in my original blog post, superfood it ain’t. And then there’s plenty about bread we should be wary of.

But Professor Buttriss does not engage in any meaningful way with the health-related issues I raise in my blog post at all. Is there any enlightenment to be found in the article itself? Don’t hold your breath…

To her credit, Dr O’Connor (the BNF ‘nutrition scientist’ who authored the article) tells us that bread is generally classified as a high-glycaemic index food (very destabilising for blood sugar). But nowhere in the article does she discuss the potential health hazards this poses. No mention of the symptoms of blood sugar instability, or the fact that high-GI foods are linked with diverse health issues including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer. Not a word.

And what of bread’s capacity to cause food-sensitivity related issues? Not a dicky bird on this issue either. Gluten sensitivity does not even get a mention, and neither does coeliac disease. Like they don’t happen.

So, excuse me Professor Buttriss if I am left with the impression that Warburtons have paid for a favourable review of its chief product (bread). Any person with even a smattering of nutritional knowledge I suspect would see this ‘review’ as heavily biased. Your assertion that “Warburtons [had] not been involved in writing or shaping any of the contents” does not reassure me at all. Something tells me many others will feel pretty much the same way.

So, Professor, please do comment on any of the above and also perhaps answer this question: How did this review come about in the first place? Specifically, did the BNF approach Warburtons with the idea of a review which Warburtons may fund? Or did Warburtons hatch the plan and bring it to you? And maybe tell us too how much Warburton stumped up to support the “time” spent preparing the article. If you really believe the BNF is an ethical organisation and transparent in its dealings, now’s your chance to prove it.

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