Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Sugar

Sugar: spinning a web of influence

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 11 February 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h231

Re: Sugar: spinning a web of influence

We felt compelled to write in response to the BMJ feature highlighting “a sinister web of influence” that industry supposedly has over UK nutrition research and public policy.

The article and surrounding press coverage suggests poor quality and biased research may have been undertaken because nutrition studies are often funded by industry. However, this piece actually fails to show any evidence of this, and merely highlights the well-known fact that a proportion of UK nutrition research has been funded by industry. This information is already clearly in the public domain and cited as a funding source or conflict of interest in each of the peer review publications the work has been published in.

Industry funding is an inevitable consequence of limited government research funds. In addition it is useful for academia to link with industry as this allows research findings to be more rapidly translated into products and interventions. Quicker implementation of findings and roll out to the public has the potential to influence public health rather than remaining as static academic information. I believe this article goes to show that the author (and by extension the BMJ) does not fully understand how research funding works. Personally, I think it is encouraging that companies are seeking out the help of independent world class researchers such as Professor Jebb to carry out research on wider nutritional issues beyond their immediate product lines.

Public health nutrition is an extremely important and challenging research field with the potential to improve the nation’s health, and that of future generations. This has never been more present than with current trends of obesity, unhealthy lifestyles and associated diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia.

Good scientific debates around nutrition and policy are to be encouraged and will improve recommendations, and are what we expect to see published in peer review journals like the BMJ. However the press coverage and debate around this piece has been headline-grabbing and unhelpful. This comes in a week when the BMJ open Heart journal published a review of data collected 35 years ago to highlight a lack of evidence for cardiovascular disease prevention guidance in 1983 (Harcombe et al BMJ Open Heart 2015;2: doi:10.1136/openhrt-2014-000196). “Dietary recommendations were introduced for 220 million US and 56 million UK citizens by 1983, in the absence of supporting evidence from RCTs”. Both pieces seem to be attacks on public health researchers and policy to create headlines.

The leading researchers listed in the feature have undertaken many years of vital high-quality research to determine the most effective dietary guidelines, explore the best way to implement guidelines and to encourage public adherence to the recommendations. They are widely-respected researchers of great intellect and integrity who aim to advance nutritional science and improve public health. The same could not be said of this and the BMJ Open Heart feature.

Confusing and contradictory headlines create uncertainty, mistrust of researchers and public policy, and disengage the public from health messages. This will ultimately only serve the nation harm, and increase the ever-growing number of individuals with weight and diet-related illness; more diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer and dementia.

Competing interests: No competing interests

13 February 2015
Michelle Harvie
Research dietitian
Louise Gorman
University Hospital South Manchester Trust and University of Manchester
Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention Centre