BMJ Investigation Claims To Blow The Lid Off Sugar Industry’s Attempts To Influence Health Policy

An investigative report from the BMJ reportedly found “extensive links” between the sugar industry and public health scientists. British freelance investigative journalist Jonathan Gornall, formerly of the Times and previously named “Freelance Journalist of the Year” by the Medical Journalists Association, claims in his series of reports published in the BMJ that the sugar industry could be influencing health policy.

Gornall told Medical News Today that “without a doubt,” the influence of the sugar industry on health policy is a major issue in the United States.

“Several of the big companies who have been seeking influence over public health organizations and researchers in the UK are headquartered in the US, where the impact can only be magnified in their favor.”

Gornall’s investigative series on sugar includes four parts: “Sugar: spinning a web of influence,” “Biasing the science,” “Why the Responsibility Deal is a dead duck,” and “Mars & Co: sweet heroes or villains?” In the series, Gornall exposed evidence of a government committee on nutrition receiving funding from junk food companies.

According to Medical News Today, the BMJ says that Gornall’s work raises “important questions about the potential for bias and conflict of interest among public health experts.”

Funding deemed questionable by the report included unprecedented money given to members of the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research unit (HNR) and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition from companies including Coca-Cola, Mars, and Nestlé. Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford, is also the chair of the Responsibility Deal Food Network and, according to BMJ, the investigation into Big Sugar, accepted $2.10 million from sugar companies in the last decade, including a donation from Coca-Cola in the amount of nearly $300,000 dollars to fund just one study she was leading. Jebb defended herself to the British journal.

“Everything I do, whether in my research or as chair of the responsibility deal, is to try to improve public health. I do think that requires discussions with the food industry, and I think it is appropriate that we should be encouraging them to invest in research conducted by independent scientists.”

Gornall explained what surprised him most about his investigation.

“For me the most surprising discovery was that an entire generation of public health researchers have not only convinced themselves that accepting funding from companies peddling unhealthy products is acceptable practice, but also that they seem genuinely surprised that such relationships might raise concerns about the impartiality of their work.”

Gornall said that the conflict of interest makes the public health researcher’s messages less credible.

“Public health is the business of government, and not the business of big business. Industry’s legal obligation is to its shareholders, for whom it must make as much money as possible. If it can do that while striking a socially responsible pose, it will do so, but when the bottom line is under threat, social responsibility is exposed as a tokenistic charade.”

The BMJ‘s author stated that he did find some sugar industry bias among the industry sponsored studies, but that that was not the purpose of his investigation. In part two of the BMJ report, the journalist exposed an article in Diabetes Care which actually contested a claim in the same medical journal which stated a need to “reconsider consumption of dietary sugar based on the growing concern of obesity and type 2 diabetes.” Gornell says that his BMJ report focuses on the general principle of conflicts of interest in funding public health studies about sugar and its role in health.

“How can it be right for a researcher attempting to establish whether or not ingredient X is harmful to accept funding to do so from the manufacturer of ingredient X? Would society consider it acceptable if the salary or expenses of a judge ruling on a legal dispute were paid by one of the parties?”

The BMJ author pointed out in part four of the sugar report that the Credit Suisse Research Institute admitted that obesity and nutrition are primary health concerns, but then they also gave Big Sugar an out by adding that “medical research is yet to prove conclusively that sugar is in fact the leading cause of obesity, diabetes type II or metabolic syndrome.”

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