Thursday 12 February 2015

Sugar conspiracies and the sad demise of the British Medical Journal

Has the British Medical Journal been taken over by a coalition of its enemies? It seems to be on a mission to destroy its credibility this week. A day after it publishes a shonky study and a woeful editorial about moderate drinking, up pops self-styled 'investigative journalist' Jonathan Gornall again. Last year he was bitching about me and anybody else who opposes minimum pricing in some articles that were so bad the EU ripped up his cheque. This time he's taking on 'Big Food'.

Gornall's series of articles about minimum pricing were lame, shifty and intellectually dishonest, but his new series about sugar is just dull. A theme is emerging in his hatchet jobs. First, he takes a policy which is controversial with the public but which has legitimate arguments for and against. He then treats the policy as a no-brainer which could only possibly be opposed by vested interests. He then looks for any kind of funding from business to civil society and the public sector; if he cannot find any he implies that it exists. Finally, he pads out his articles with quotes from activists and presents their failure to persuade government to bring in the controversial policy as being the result of 'webs of influence'.

Last year it was minimum pricing with the Alcohol Health Alliance. This time it's food reformulation with Action on Sugar. Action on Sugar have only been around for a year and their plan to reduce sugar in the food supply by 40 per cent is an arbitrary, unrealistic fantasy, but that doesn't stop Gornall presenting it as if it would have been a fait accompli had it not been for the pesky food industry.

It is clear that this ad hominem addict is either desperate for material or is totally unfamiliar with the people he is writing about. Laughably, he puts Prof. Susan Jebb at the heart of his story on the pretext she is funded by Coca-Cola. In fact, she does not personally profit from the food industry at all. She is part of a long-standing collaboration between food companies and government scientists which has led to the kind of product reformulation that Action on Sugar wants.

More to the point, Jebb is a supporter of sugar taxes, bans on confectionery at supermarket tills, mandatory product reformulation and various other nanny state policies. I disagree with her views - and have said so - but it is quite obvious that those views are her own, not those of Coca-Cola and Mars.

Despite the best efforts of Gornall and Action on Sugar, the McCarthyism that increasingly surrounds alcohol has not yet engulfed food and a number of scientists - including Jebb herself - have taken Gornall to task for his tabloid muck-raking. It's worth reading all of them, but this is my favourite, from Catherine Collins of the British Dietetic Association...

“As a dietitian I rely on high quality human nutrition research to ensure dietary advice to patients is optimal. This information is mainly obtained from clinical trials published in peer-reviewed clinical journals.
“So it is disconcerting to read Jonathan Gornall’s exposure of the link between industry and researchers – not that the link exists, but that a journalist feels it necessary to impugn good collaborative studies between industry and independent nutrition researchers based at the MRC and in UK universities. Science should deal in hard evidence, not insinuation.
“Similar to last year’s exposé on the UK alcohol industry and funded research (‘Under the Influence’, BMJ 2013), Gornall applies his focus to the machinations of the sugar industry. His citations extend to a Penguin book, a CBC news story, ‘Action on Sugar’ press releases, and media features from an ardent anti-sugar author. These citations are used to counter the hundreds of peer-reviewed clinical papers crafted into the public health documents he cites from the Department of Health, Public Health England and SACN.
“Despite being qualified to interpret medical and nutrition research, I remain as confused as the public will be to what Gornall is trying to say. Is it that the lure of money moulds researchers into compliant, complicit BigSugar agents willing to pervert good science for dosh? Is it that despite being open and transparent about funding links, plus registering your study prospectively with ClinicalTrials US/ EU and subsequent research, peer review is still inadequate for objectivity if your funding came from BigSugar?
“From a dietitian’s perspective, I would predict that the reason BigSugar has collaborated with researchers such as Jebb, Prentice, Macdonald et al is to ensure their research is conducted with those most knowledgeable in that field of investigation.

“As a science communicator I think it’s important to separate correlation from causation.  As an UK registered Dietitian I’ll continue to use objectivity, impartiality and my grounded knowledge in clinical nutrition to determine the relative merits of publications, whatever their funding source.”

Well said. I also liked this, from Prof. Tom Sanders, Emeritus Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, King’s College London:

“The implied alternative in the BMJ article is to have a committee made up of members who are not tainted by connection to the food industry. In my experience such individuals lack the required experience and expertise and are likely to be incompetent."


Christopher Snowdon said...

However, if one had the temerity to substitute the term 'the food industry' for 'the tobacco industry', this paragraph:

“The implied alternative in the BMJ article is to have a committee
made up of members who are not tainted by connection to the food
industry. In my experience such individuals lack the required experience
and expertise and are likely to be incompetent."

would be seized in the jaws of the slaveringly Politically Correct mob and torn limb from limb.

Such is the impartiality of medical science these days.

Christopher Snowdon said...

If these idiots get to make companies producing jam and marmalade reformulate they will end up having to load it with potassium sorbate to stop the mould growing. Don't they understand how humectants work in food?

Christopher Snowdon said...

>>The implied alternative in the BMJ article is to have a committee made up of members who are not tainted by connection to the food industry.

What they really want is a bunch of sociologists who hate industry, just like in all the other branches of fake public health.