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The heat is turning up on sugar and the nutrition bodies connected with the sugar industry

Posted Jan 18 2013 9:46am

Even if you have only a passing interest in nutrition and the subject of ‘healthy eating’, you’re likely to have picked up a change of wind in recent times regarding the dietary cause of obesity. For three or four decades, conventional wisdom has had it that dietary fat is the true villain of the peace. Fat, after all, contains about twice as many calories as carbohydrate and protein, and the idea here is that if we eat a lot of fat, we’re likely to end up eating calories that are surplus to requirements, which can then end up being dumped as fat in our tissues. Fat is also incriminated by its name (it is called ‘fat’, after all).

However, latterly, there has been increasing focus on the role of sugar in obesity and disease. This week’s British Medical Journal carries and editorial which highlights this. This editorial makes mention of another piece in the same edition of the journal in which journalist Geoff Watts writes about the book Pure, White and Deadly, written by doctor and nutritionist John Yudkin in 1972. I have a copy of the book on my bookshelf which I purchased some years ago. The book highlights what John Yudkin thought about the perils of sugar, particularly in relation to heart disease. It also makes and account of some of the political struggles he faced from the food industry and the British Nutrition Foundation.

The food industry can be expected to want to protect itself from anti-sugar attacks, of course. Only this week we have seen Coca Cola launch a TV advertisement in the US which is a major damage limitation exercise, pointing the finger at all calories as a potential source of obesity (not just those from super-sugary soft drinks) and highlighting their offering of no-calorie and low-calorie products. Most people, I think, are savvy enough to see through this sort of guff.

However, the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) is, I think, a more worrying body, because (like the British Dietetic Association), I think it positions itself as a source of independent and evidence-based advice on diet. It’s got a really ‘solid’ name, I believe the organisation is in fact riddled with conflicts of interest that come from its apparently cosy relationship with the food industry. For example, the BNF’s publication published a (I think) hugely biased ‘review’ in praise of bread which was funded by a bread manufacturer. I wrote about this here . The Director General of the BNF wrote to me with some sort of a defence, but closer examination revealed the situation was worse than I first suspected, and she never did respond to some questions I asked her about how the review came about in the first place (giving her the opportunity to prove the integrity and transparency of her organisation in this instance). You can read about this here .

Here’s an except from Pure, White and Deadly which speaks, I think, of a sorry tale of how the British Nutrition Foundation worked to suppress John Yudkin, his research and his influence. Read this except, and you may be forgiven for thinking that the BNF is not a nutritional organisation at all, but a political one. Its remit, I believe, is simply to further the interests of its sponsors (elements within the food industry).

The British Nutrition Foundation
The British Nutrition Foundation was born in 1967, 26 years after the birth of the Nutrition Foundation of the United States. The latter is funded almost entirely by the American food industry and has a large Council, comprising not only members of the industry but also research workers in nutrition and food sci¬ ences and distinguished members of the public. It produces a regular monthly journal. Nutrition Reviews, which discusses and comments. on recently published research in the wide field of nutrition. The Nutrition Foundation also publishes occasional volumes that sum¬ marize what research has discovered in the major areas of nutrition. On the whole, it can be said that the American Nutrition Foundation is not influenced by the fact that it is funded by the food industry, although it has to be admitted that it rarely criticizes aspects of the industry that a completely uncommitted group might consider deserve at least some degree of criticism.

Thus, when it was set up in 1967, the British Nutrition Found¬ ation (BNF) had the American organization as a model, and it too was funded by the food industry. Its first and major sponsors were the sugar refiners Tate & Lyie, and the flour millers then known as Rank. This combination occurred, it seems, chiefly because of the personal friendship between, on the one hand, the families of Tate and Lyie, and on the other hand the Rank family. There was also a business friendship between the two groups, since Rank was to a sizeable extent a user of sugar – for example, in the manufacture of cakes and biscuits – especially after it had amalgamated with two other large firms in the flour milling and baking industry to form Ranks Hovis McDougall.

The first Director of the British Nutrition Foundation was the late Professor Alastair Frazer, a biochemist who had taken a special interest in the biochemistry of drugs and had just retired from the Chair of Pharmacology at Birmingham University. His major research had been on how the body digests and absorbs fat from food. To this extent, then, he was concerned with nutrition, although in a fairly narrow field. At first he was kept busy approach¬ ing other firms in the food industry, most of whom were, it seems, less than enthusiastic about promising financial support to the organization; for this reason the BNF had a precarious first few years. However, one approach to the food industry seemed more successful than most: Professor Frazer’s claim that, in a climate of growing consumer concern about processes and additives used by the food industry, the BNF would stand as a sort of protective fence between the industry and the public. In spite of these time-consuming efforts to produce funds for the Foundation, the Director-General nevertheless found time to supervise and support a film telling of the virtues of sugar as a food.

From what I have said, you might ask whether the BNF at that time tended to be somewhat on the side of sugar, and if so whether it has remained so. I shall let you make up your own mind when you have finished reading this chapter.

The Director-General objects
In the late 19605 Ranks Hovis McDougall ( R H M) decided to begin research into the possibility of producing an inexpensive high-protein food: an attempt that, some twenty years and tens of millions of pounds later, has recently resulted in an excellent savoury pie appearing on the market. At the very beginning of the project I was asked by the then Director of Research of RHM to act as an adviser on the project.

At the same time he told me that his friends from Ranks Hovis McDougall and from Tate & Lyle, both of which continued to be major sponsors of the BNF, had said that it was not appropriate for me to advise RHM; nevertheless he himself wanted me to do so. A short while after the project got under way, he told me that the Director-General of the BNF was pressing him to tell me to desist from saying that sugar was harmful. I said that it would be more sensible if we had a meeting with Professor Frazer at which I would describe the results of our recent research and explain the reasonableness of my views.

We met at BNF headquarters: Professor Frazer, the Research Director of RHM, two or three members of BNF, and I. We had an interesting discussion, from which it was clear that Professor Frazer was not very up to date on research into the causes of coronary heart disease, or research into some of the effects of sugar on the body. He strongly rejected the suggestion that sugar had, or could have, anything to do with coronary disease. He insisted that there was no relationship between the increase in sugar consumption and any increase in coronary disease; in fact, he said, there had not been an increase in the disease. I said that this was contradicted by the general recognition of cigarette smoking as an important cause of the disease; as there had been a tremendous increase in smoking, it followed there must also have been an increase in the prevalence of heart disease. ‘That only shows,’ said Professor Frazer, ‘that smoking too has nothing to do with the disease’ – a view that would have been supported by very few other scientists or doctors.

As we left the room after lunch, the Director-General was overheard to say, ‘You can take it that Yudkin won’t be getting any research grants from the BNF’; this prophecy was certainly fulfilled.

The BNF doesn’t want nutritionists from QEC
Throughout my time as Head of the Department of Nutrition at Queen Elizabeth College, neither I nor any of my colleagues had any association with the BNF. I should point out here that my Department, instituted in 1953, was the first in any European university to be devoted to undergraduate and postgraduate teaching of nutrition, and was carrying out research that was probably at least as extensive as that of any other nutrition department in the country.

In terms of the aims of the BNF, its most important committee must be its Science Committee. The chairmen of this committee have always been distinguished scientists; none has been a professional nutritionist but they have all had some contact, if sometimes rather remote, with the subject of nutrition. As I write, there have been five chairmen of this committee since the Foundation began; these have included the late Sir Charles Dodds, one of the outstanding biochemists of the time, and the late Sir Ernst Chain, who shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin with Florey and Fleming. Both Dodds and Chain approached me while Chairman and asked why I was not on the BNF Science Committee, or indeed on any of its other committees. When I said that I had not been invited, they asked if they might suggest that I should be appointed. To this I agreed, although I guessed what the reply would be. And so it proved. Both chairmen had been told in due course that there was no question of having me in any way associated with the BNF. What I had not guessed was that the member of the BNF Board from Tate & Lyle, which had remained one of the major sponsors of the Foundation, had said that if I were appointed he would resign from the Board, and would see that his firm – and others – withdrew their sponsorship.

If you have the stomach for more, I suggest you grab yourself a copy of John Yudkin’s Pure, White and Deadly. For many years, it was out of print. But recently the publisher (Penguin) has decided to roll the presses on this book once again, and I think it’s about time too.

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