Category Archives: food deception

Is there any independent academic integrity left?

The stories have been dripping out one by one. But, taken together, they demonstrate the way in which big business is successfully subverting the way in which it is regulated and the evidence on which that regulation is based.

Today, for example, Joanna Blythman highlights the way in which Big Food has manoeuvred so that it can effectively regulate itself

And The Times published a story explaining how the tobacco giants funded studies into vaping.

But these are only the most recent examples. A few days ago a story in Medical News Today revealed the big soda companies had been funding almost 100 national health organisations at the same time as they were campaigning against legislation designed to reduce soda intake.

Last month an article in the New York Times reports on research which argues that “the sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead.”

Before that there was the controversy over the dispute over the benefits or otherwise of statins – particularly the role of the drug industry in funding Sir Rory Collins who supports the use of statins.

And then there was the way the Soft Drinks Association’s Gavin Partington was brilliantly caught out by Mishal Hussain on the Today programme.

He cited research which he said proved the case against the British government’s proposal to put a levy on sugary drinks. Hussain forced him to admit that this research had been commissioned by his organisation.

For further example, please look at my earlier blogs on academic integrity, including

I am sure I have missed many further examples of these potential clashes of interest.

But there is more than enough evidence now to show that we can no longer take as read the integrity of academic research.

Indeed it is perhaps not just the products we consume that should carry detailed labelling. It is time to impose the same disclosure obligations on all academics, particularly when they claim their research is “independent”


British soft drinks industry caught out in deception

Congratulations to Mishal Hussain for catching out the British Soft Drinks Association’s Gavin Partington as he tried to mislead the public by using one of the oldest PR deception tricks in the book.

Partington, the director general of the BSDA, was appearing on the Today programme –  – to argue against the British government’s proposal to put a levy on sugary drinks.

This is virtually the only measure to survive from the government’s original plan to have a major crackdown on junk-food; the policy has now been reduced from a “game changing moment” to the “start of a conversation.”

During the interview with Hussain, in which he tried to represent his members, which include Coca Cola and PepsiCo as victims, Partington talked about research that proved his case; his initial statement did not mention that the BDSA had commissioned the research – indeed taken on its own would leave the impression that it had no involvement in it.

It was only when he was pressed that Partington was forced to admit the BDSA’s involvement.

The exchange went like this.

Partington said that the sugary drinks tax “will cost 4,000 job losses. This analysis is based on a rigorous academic study by Oxford Economics and we know from experience in Mexico that the tax there has simply resulted in a calorie reduction of six calories on an overall diet of 6,000 calaories.”

Hussain then asked: “Is that the report you commissioned.”

Partington: “We did indeed commission it and it is right that we should study and analyse the impact.”

Lest anyone think that Partington’s initial failure to mention the BDSA’s involvement was a slip of the tongue, they should look at the BDSA’s press release when the report was published. If there was a mention, it was so deep in the sub-text it escaped me.

Presenting commissioned reports as independent research is one of the oldest tricks in the corporate presentatation book. If you want to see another example, look at the way Energy UK, the gas industry’ trade association, presents research carried out on its behalf.

I should make clear that I am not saying here such research automatically lacks integrity – though it is very rare for such research to contradict publicly the interests of the person commissioning it.

All I do suggest is that for research to be credible the organisation commissioning it should identify itself prominently. It is equally wrong – however much companies and lobby groups may argue to the contrary – to label any commissioned research as independent.

The one certainty is that we are going to see and hear quite a lot of Partington as the debate on sugar taxes and junk-food intensifies.

And it is worth noting that he represents a trade association rather than a specific company. Over the last 15 years or so the number of trade associations has grown like topsy and their role has changed dramatically from a discreet representative of their industry to aggressive lobbyist.

In part this reflects the media demands but it is also very convenient for the companies. For people like Partington will never talk in specifics (he won’t for example talk about anything directly to do with an individual company). This enables an industry to appear open and also present its argument without really having to answer a direct question about what its companies do.

If you doubt how prevalent this has become, look at my analysis of this.


It is not for me to state here whether or not a sugar tax will contribute to the nation’s health. All I do know is that one should be extremely suspicious about the integrity of any industry that cowers behind its trade association and is anything less than totally open about the research it commissions.

Food labelling is not enough

The demand for more food labelling is once again growing following a couple of recent initiatives. But I remain unconvinced that – on its own – this approach can deliver healthier eating.

The first initiative came from Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health. She argues that products should have a label stating the exercise needed to burn off the calories created by the foods. This, she says, will help people maintain a healthy weight.

Then the food manufacturer Mars warns that some of its sauces are so high in salt, fat and sugar that they should be eaten only once a week.

It is hard to disagree with Ms Cramer’s advice and Mars’s admission is certainly welcome – though the cynic in me wonders if Mars would have done this if it really thought there would be a significant impact on sales.

But, as an outside observer, I do have reservations about the emphasis on labelling.

First adding ever more rules and regulations is a job creation scheme for the expensive parasite trades, as any quick google search of ‘food regulation’ will show.

There, you will find lawyers and software companies offering to help clients meet minimum legal requirements. Their emphasis is on complying with the law rather than providing healthy food!!

Secondly, I wonder how effective labelling is on its own. When one set of rules fails to change behaviour, the labelling lobby respond by demanding even stronger warnings and advice rather than asking whether a more broadly based strategy would be more successful.

Surely experts like Ms Cramer need to look beyond their own bunker – particularly when they appear in the media.

The interviews she gave about her latest initiative contained lots of headline grabbers – for example that it takes about 43 minutes to run off the calories created by eating a quarter of a large pizza.

But nowhere did she suggest that the healthier option in many cases was to try the home-made option.

Surely the best way to ensure you are not stuffing yourself full of fattening salt and sugar is not to ration your consumption of Dolmio but make the tomato sauce yourself – which is hardly difficult. Instead of ‘occasional’ use, as Mars recommends, the healthiest option is ‘never’.

Ms Cramer’s approach illustrates the way in which those who take on the food industry seem focused on their area of expertise, while the supermarkets operate a much more coherent strategy.

Sometimes it appears that investigative journalists, food labellers, scientists and marketing specialists are too happy ploughing their own furrows rather than working together to challenge the supermarkets with a cohesive strategy.

If you doubt the shared interest of the supermarkets, look at the way the promote themselves. In my local Tesco, there appears to be many more industrial products on sale than ingredients.

Yet the shop has EASY, FRESH and CHOICE, emblazoned several times on its external walls.

The supermarkets have seized ownership of these words. The goal must be to reclaim those words for home-made food and change the perceptions the food industry fights so effectively to present.

Of course this includes examining the contents of their products, but it also means challenging the image they present of themselves.

Perhaps a first step would be to persuade customers – by repeating the message time and again – that they should ask this simple question when they go round their supermarket shelves: “If I made this meal myself would it be cheaper cheaper, healthier, tastier and as convenient.”

The answer won’t always be yes because we all have busy lives. But if we get into the habit of making our own meals more often, then there will be less need for us to worry too much about the contents notes on the product labels.

Home-made is the real convenience food


The research carried out by Zoe Harcombe on the conflicts of interest of those set up to advise on changes to the ‘eatwell plate’ (what we should eat to have a well-balanced diet) is very revealing

By analysing the other interests of the group’s members she shows how determined the supermarkets and food industry are to control over any decisions that restrict what they put in our food.

Her research also reminds us to be sceptical about all those organisations – not just in the food industry – with soft friendly sounding names which disguise the reality that they are lobbies for commercial interests.

In my blogs over the last year, I have highlighted when alarm bells should ring.

Here are a couple of examples.

First the wonderful phrase that one hears so often: “We have commissioned independent research.” If you commission something, its reports cannot be independent. Have you ever seen this sort of research producing results that embarrass the sponsor?

Secondly the people I call secret allies

These are a mix of academics, consultants, research institutes. Always double check to see if academics have a private commercial business whose interests are helped by their research: also whether consultants have commercial clients whose interests their research endorses; and check who is funding the research institutes.

Thirdly – and this brings us back to the food industry, but does apply elsewhere – distrust any organisation with a name that oozes integrity – it probably supports the exact opposite of what the name implies.

And the classic example of this is the way food products are made to sound nicer and friendlier. Take the fascinating research by Joanna Blythman into the way E numbers have been replaced by wholesome-sounding ingredients.

And, most recently, look at the Guardian’s analysis of the decision by supermarkets to launch 76 lines with fictitious farm names.

(How weird it is that supermarkets are creating mythical places for the origins of our food at the very time consumers want to know more about where their food comes from)

How are all these organisations – particularly the supermarkets and those in the food industry – able to get away with this?

The main reason is surely that while they claim to be in competition, their strategies are all variations on a similar theme. They want us to buy products rather than ingredients; and they do so by delivering a clear message that their products are healthier, cheaper, easier to prepare and tastier than anything we make ourselves.

In contrast to this coherent strategy there is what appears to me, as an outsider, as a disunity of purpose.

I don’t want for one moment to understate the skill and often personal bravery of those who expose what the food industry does. But they sometimes seem more focused on their own area of expertise, whether it is labelling, salt, sugar etc.

The power of the supermarkets and food industry can’t be beaten until every analysis of what they do challenges their core marketing strategy.

For example:

Healthier: food scientists rightly call for better labelling. But shouldn’t they also add that the best way to know what you are eating is to cook with your own ingredients.

Cheaper: I doubt if supermarkets would focus on marketing products if they could make a similar margin by selling ingredients. But, perhaps those columns comparing the merits of products sold by the different supermarkets could include the home-made equivalent.

Easier to prepare: why don’t more recipe books follow the example of Mary Berry who, in one recipe book, includes notes on what to prepare in advance and what you can freeze.

Tastier: Would supermarkets invent the names of farms etc if they felt their products could stand judgement on taste?

Of course most people eat food products from time to time – and there are some products which are hard for journeyman cooks like me – like ravioli – to replicate. And I am not offering to smoke my own fish.

But no-one should be conned into buying a ragu sauce when it can, if necessary, be prepared in advance and frozen.

Surely the way ahead is to persuade to ask this question when they go to the supermarket: if I made this myself, would it be cheaper, healthier, tastier and easier to prepare.

It is to reclaim the phrase “convenience food” from the industrial producers.

We should all endorse Joanna Blythman’s message that there is always time to cook.

Don’t trust the “independent” expert

Friends of the Earth has produced a fascinating piece of research into how “food industry front groups and covert communications are shaping the story of food.”

The report examines how the food industry deploys “covert communication tactics to shape public opinion without most people realizing the stories are being shaped behind the scenes to promote corporate interests.”

And it focuses on tactics that include deploying front groups who appear to be independent, but are in fact made up of industry or PR professionals; targeting female audiences; infiltrating social media; attacking the credibility of those who raise concerns about industrial food production; partnering with prominent media venues on “native advertising” disguised as real news content; using third-party allies to frame the story of food in favour of chemical intensive industrial food production.

This report concentrates on the food industry and looks at the links in considerable depth. But the problem extends far wider than just this sector. In a series of blogs in the last three months, I have highlighted a number of other areas – political as well as business-related – where apparently independent research should be treated sceptically.


I look at the way politicians and large corporations like to quote “independent experts” in support of their case. But even a cursory investigation shows these experts are not as independent as they seem.

And in

I show that the research carried out by academics, think tanks or consultants is not always accompanied by the neutral intellectual rigour that we would expect from such organisations.

Of course this does not mean that every academic is untrustworthy, that think tanks are all funded secretly by commercial and business organisations or that every word from every trade and industry linked organisation is designed to deceive.

But it does mean that when we read a piece of apparently independent research, analysis or advocacy, we should ask lots of questions and we should certainly not take their conclusions at face value.

These are a couple of examples of what we should ask.

o Does a piece of academic research benefit the private commercial interests of the researcher or toe the line of any of the university’s commercial sponsors? Always google the academic’s name and look up their private business interests.

o Does a piece of political analysis on a region like the Middle East reflect the views of the think tank’s sponsors? Always check the past as well as present members of its advisory board – they usually give an indication of its political links and bias.

o When an industry like the gas sector, cites independent research, always check if the producers of the research have commercial links with major companies in the sector.

o The more impressive and portentous a name, the less likely it is that the organisation is as politically or commercially neutral as it claims to be.

o And I suppose I should say that you should always look up the agendas organisations like Friends of the Earth and read their reports with care. We should have the same scepticism for those we support as for those we oppose – though I am pretty clear who I believe!!!

There are a couple of other points made in the Friends of the Earth report that strike a chord.

First the partnerships with media organisations – when a newspaper produces editorial “in partnership” with a commercial organisation or government, one should wonder how close that relationship has become.

Second; the links with Social Media. I guess it is no secret that some people are paid considerable sums of money to support products. But it is still quite shocking to discover the extent this is done by the food industry.

So the final warning is to distrust all bloggers and tweeters – and I suppose that includes me.

More trade association deceits about sugar

One more trade association – one more set of evasions, this time by Barbara Gallani, the Food and Drink Federation’s director of food science and safety, on the programme the Truth about Sugar (Thursday evening 9pm BBC1).

Dont get me wrong, I have no sympathy for the line being pedelled by presenter Fiona Phillips and her battalion of health-foucsed academics – they seem to be suggesting that if labelling has failed to change our eating habits, the solution is even more labelling.

This is nonsense. The solution is surely to tell people not to eat supermarket products but to buy their ingredients and make their own meals; and to convince people to do that by destroying the myth that products are more convenient, cheaper and tastier than the meals we make ourselves.

However, after listening to Ms Gallani being interviewed by Ms Phillips, I concluded that at least the health academics were the lesser of the two evils.

I dont think I have seen such a blatant case of a spokesperson completely ignoring the questions, which were about the benefits of the traffic light system (which helps identify high levels of fats, sugar and salt). The transcript speaks for itself – she can’t manage a direct answer to any question. Also note her wonderfully ambiguous use of the word nutrient – it covers such a multitude of sins.

Q. Do you think that if all food producers were made to adhere to the traffic light systems it might help because that is clearer than all other systems that exist?

A. Well I think that there is not a single solution for a problem such as obesity that is so complex.

Q. But a traffic light system would help, wouldn’t it, because if you see a red next to the sugar that would make me put it down?

Q. The information that is available on (unclear word), whether it is through the reference intake values, whether it is through the traffic light system, is clear and is accurate.

Q. Do you not think it would be a whole lot clearer if the packets showed how many teaspoons of sugar. Then everyone would understand that.

A. The reason for the amount of sugar having to be labelled per 100 grammes or per portion in grammes is again in the food information to consumers regulation, where all nutrients are treated the same. And a gramme is a very well recognised unit, when if you talk about teaspoons of tablespoons, what do you think, four, five, six grammes.

Not one direct answer out of three. No doubt Ms Gallani said what she had been told to say by the lawyers and PR department but, by looking so evasive, she destroyed her own case.