by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Conflicts-of-interest

Aug 23 2011

New study: healthy diets produce health benefits

The latest issue of JAMA has a paper on a “portfolio” of dietary means to reduce blood cholesterol levels.

The paper is likely to get lots of press because it concludes that consuming the “portfolio”—a combination of plant sterols, soy protein, viscous fibers, and nuts—does a better job of lowering LDL-cholesterol (the “bad” kind) than does dietary advice to reduce saturated fat.

The paper is unusually difficult to read  (see the Abstract, for example).  But besides that, I interpret the study in part as a drug trial.

One look at the Abstract and I immediately suspected that this study must have been sponsored by a maker of plant sterol margarines.

Bingo!

Plant sterols are well established to reduce blood cholesterol levels.  Unilever, which makes Take Control margarines, is one of the sponsors.

As I interpret it, the study shows:

  • Advising people who weigh an average of 76 kg (167 pounds) to consume a healthy diet doesn’t work.  Study subjects did not change their diets by much during the six months of the trial.  No news here.
  • Advising people to add things to their diets has a better chance of succeeding than advising taking things away (like saturated fat).
  • All of the portfolio items have been established to lower blood cholesterol in clinical trials, although the evidence for soy protein seems a bit iffy these days.
  • The study does not distinguish between the relative effects of soy protein, fiber, or cholesterol lowering margarines. If soy is eliminated, that leaves fiber and margarines. I’m guessing the margarines were the critical factor. Hence: a partial drug trial.

And because my book on calories is coming out next March, I must point out that the study groups reported losing  losing small amounts of weight, which means they must also have reduced their calorie intake.  Weight loss alone should help with blood cholesterol.

The take-home message: if you really do substitute nuts, sources of fiber, and healthy foods for whatever less healthful foods you used to eat, you ought to get some health benefit, with or without plant sterol margarines.

QED: Healthy diets produce health benefits.

It’s always nice to see that confirmed.

 

 

Apr 21 2011

More on Oxfam’s anti-poverty partnership with Coca-Cola

Among the many thoughtful comments on yesterday’s post is one from the Director of Oxfam America’s Private Sector Department, Chris Jochnick, who writes that I did not “quite capture the scope and intent of this project.”

As part of our work, Oxfam has a responsibility to engage with global corporations, through both collaboration and campaigns, in order to have constructive dialog on their business practices.

….Throughout the work, Oxfam has maintained complete independence including the ability to undertake advocacy against either company if the situation warranted. The Coca-Cola Company and Oxfam America shared the costs of the collaboration roughly in the proportion of 2:1, with The Coca-Cola Company contributing two-thirds of the costs (US $400,000) and Oxfam America contributing one-third of the costs in kind including staff time.

Unrelated to the study, The Coca-Cola Company made an earlier donation of $2,500,000 to Oxfam between 2008-2010 for humanitarian work in Sudan, with an emphasis on work related to water, sanitation and hygiene.

….Our independent voice keeps Oxfam’s approach to private sector collaborations dynamic and honest.

Let me add a bit more about what I think is wrong with this picture.

The goal of Coca-Cola is to sell more Coca-Cola.  The goal of Oxfam is to address world poverty.  I’m having trouble understanding how these goals could be mutually compatible.

Coke sales in the United States are flagging.  Last year, three quarters of Coke’s revenue derived from sales outside of North America in emerging economies where rates of obesity are increasing rapidly.

Sugary beverages like Coke are increasingly associated with obesity and its health consequences, problems now rampant in developing economies.

In the past year, Coke has embarked on an aggressive campaign of contributions to potentially critical groups such as the American Academy of Family Physicians, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Save the Children, and now Oxfam.

These groups are now highly unlikely to advise their constituents to cut down on sugary sodas.  If nothing else, sponsorship buys silence.

Oxfam may have done the work of its Poverty Footprint Report without company interference.  It is what is not in the report that is so much in Coke’s interest.

For just under $3 million, Coke has purchased an endorsement from Oxfam of its “anti-poverty” practices and silence on the role of sugary drinks in obesity.  This kind of public relations is well worth the price.

What does Oxfam get in this bargain?  The money, of course, but at the cost of serious questions about the credibility of its report and its independence.  Perhaps these are tolerable, but what about loss of respect?

I score this as a win for Coca-Cola.

 

 

 

Apr 20 2011

The latest oxymoron: Oxfam helps Coca-Cola reduce poverty

I keep arguing that partnerships and alliances with food corporations put agriculture, food, nutrition, and public health advocacy groups in deep conflict of interest.

The latest example is Oxfam America’s partnership with Coca-Cola and bottler SAB Miller to evaluate the effectiveness of these corporations in reducing poverty (again, you can’t make these things up):

Despite the challenges involved, The Coca-Cola Company and SABMiller have each made ambitious and laudable commitments to labor rights, human rights, water, gender, and sustainability. However, there is little accountability to such commitments without the informed engagement of affected groups. By looking across all relevant issues (no cherry-picking) with an organization like Oxfam America and reporting out to stakeholders, these companies have opened themselves to heightened public scrutiny and hopefully increased accountability.

Hopefully, indeed.

The Oxfam Poverty Footprint Report describes the work Coca-Cola and SAB Miller are doing in Zambia and El Salvador to empower and promote sustainability.  It highlights Coca-Cola’s sustainability initiatives.

It does include some telling recommendations for follow-up.  For example:

  • Engage sugar farmers and producers to improve safety and health of sugarcane harvesters.
  • Investigate why independent truck drivers in Zambia work more than eight hours per day and discuss with drivers potential mechanisms to ensure safe driving.
  • Ensure The Coca-Cola Company’s global Advertising and Marketing to Children Policies are being effectively and consistently implemented at a regional level.

You have to read between the lines to see what this report really says.

And what about health, obesity, or the shocking increase in childhood tooth decay that is occurring in Latin America these days as a result of the influx of sugary drinks?  Not a word.

Why is Oxfam America helping Coca-Cola to market its products in Latin America and Africa?  I can only guess that Coca-Cola’s grant to Oxfam must have been substantial.

And thanks to Kelly Moltzen for sending the links.

 

Apr 15 2011

Why partnerships with food companies don’t work

Michael Siegel, MD, MPH, a Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health (whom I do not know), has been mailing me copies of his recent blog posts on partnerships between food corporations and health organizations, particularly the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) (see my previous posts), and the American Dietetic Association (ADA) (see my previous posts on this one too).

Dr. Siegel’s current post discusses two reasons why these partnerships do more for the food companies than they do for the organizations:

1. Coca-Cola and other Big Food companies are using these partnerships to enhance their corporate image, and therefore, their bottom line: sales of unhealthy products that are contributing towards the nation’s obesity epidemic.

In its 2010 annual report, Coca-Cola writes: “…researchers, health advocates and dietary guidelines are encouraging consumers to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, including those sweetened with HFCS or other nutritive sweeteners. Increasing public concern about these issues…may reduce demand for our beverages, which could affect our profitability.”

…Pepsico, in its 2010 annual report, also makes clear the connection between the company’s public image and its bottom line: “Damage to our reputation or loss of consumer confidence in our products for any of these or other reasons could result in decreased demand for our products and could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition and results of operations, as well as require additional resources to rebuild our reputation.”

2. The American Dietetic Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Academy of Family Physicians are supporting companies that oppose virtually every state-specific public health policy related to improvement of school nutrition, reduction of junk food and soda consumption, and environmental health and safety.

…Through its contributions to the Grocers Manufacturers Association (GMA), Coca-Cola is opposing any and all taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (soft drinks), opposing the removal of BPA from bottles containing liquids consumed by infants, opposing legislation to simply require the disclosure of product ingredients, opposing taxes on candy, opposing bottle bills, opposing all restrictions on BPA-containing packaging, opposing standards for food processing, and opposing school nutrition standards.

…That the AAP, AAFP, and ADA have fallen for Coca-Cola’s tricks is one possibility. The other, which I find more likely, is that they have been bought off. In other words, that the receipt of large amounts of money has caused them to look the other way. It’s amazing what a little financial support will do. And of course, this is precisely the reason why companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsico include the sponsorship of public health organizations in their marketing plans.

I’m just back from the American Society of Nutrition meetings in Washington, DC, where the daily newsletter put out by the society included full-page advertisements from Coca-Cola, the beef industry, and the Corn Refiners Association (see yesterday’s post).  And then there is the astonishing example of Coca-Cola’s $10 million gift to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to head off a potential city soda tax.

It is completely understandable why food and beverage companies would want to buy silence from health professionals.  It is much less understandable why health organizations would risk their credibility to accept such funding.  Professor Siegel’s analyses of these issues are worth close attention.

Dec 17 2010

Food corporations buy silence from “partners”

Does corporate social responsibility pay off for corporations?  Indeed it does.  Corporate money buys silence, if nothing else.

William Neuman of the New York Times provides a perfect example of how corporate sponsorship gets precisely what it is intended to do.

In this particular case:

  • The corporations are soda companies, Coke and Pepsi.
  • The social responsibility is donations of millions of dollars to a good cause.
  • The cause is Save the Children, a group devoted to child health and development projects internationally and domestically.
  • The intention?   Get Save the Children to stop advocating in favor of soda taxes.

Not long ago, Save the Children was a strong advocate for soda taxes.  Now it is not.  How come?  The group’s website explains:

about a minute ago we said, Corporate donors support us but do not pressure us. Our focus is children not soda tax policy. Back to saving more children now.

The Times, however, suggests a different explanation:

executives at Save the Children were seeking a major grant from Coca-Cola to help finance the health and education programs that the charity conducts here and abroad, including its work on childhood obesity.The talks with Coke are still going on. But the soda tax work has been stopped….In interviews this month, Carolyn Miles, chief operating officer of Save the Children, said there was no connection between the group’s about-face on soda taxes and the discussions with Coke. A $5 million grant from PepsiCo also had no influence on the decision, she said. Both companies fiercely oppose soda taxes.

A mere coincidence?  I don’t think so.  This is a clear win for soda companies, just as was Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the educational activities of the American Academy of Family Physicians. You can bet those activities do not involve telling parents not to give sodas to their kids.

Is this a win for Save the Children?  The Times reports that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funds some of the group’s anti-obesity initiatives, is disappointed.  Evidently, its $3.5 million donation wasn’t enough to convince the group to continue its anti-soda activities.

In the meantime, soda taxes continue to stay on the radar as a weight control strategy.  A new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that soda taxes could lead to a small but potentially significant weight loss.

According to FoodNavigator’s report about the study,the authors say that applying such taxes throughout the United States could generate a billion dollars or more.  It quotes lead researcher Eric Finkelstein: “Although small, given the rising trend in obesity rates, especially among youth, any strategy that shows even modest weight loss should be considered.”

This kind of study is a challenge to soda companies.  Watch Coke and Pepsi continue donations to charitable and health groups and watch those groups say not one word about the contribution of sodas to obesity.  Cigarettes, anyone?

Dec 3 2010

Latest (short) publictions: enjoy!

Occasionally I write short pieces on request.  A couple have just been published.

The State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (who knew?) runs a website, America.gov, on which it provides answers to questions “YOU Asked!”   It invited me to respond to the question, “Why are so many Americans overweight.”

And the professional journal, Childhood Obesity, asked several people to contribute to its new “Industry Watch” column.  The question: “Will private sector companies “step up to the plate” to protect children’s health?

Enjoy!  I file links to these and other writings under Publications on this site.

Nov 10 2010

Academe on “The Conflicted University”

Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, devotes its current issue to corporate and professorial conflicts of interest.

I’m interviewed in this issue, in a Q and A with Academe editor Cat Warren: Big Food, Big Agra, and the Research University.

Guest editor Sheldon Krimsky explains that:

In this special issue, a group of internationally respected academics, science journalists, and other experts tackle what have become some of the thorniest issues facing higher education: corporate conflicts of interest, the chilling of scientific speech and academic freedom, and the urgent need to protect the integrity of scientific research.

Here’s what’s in the rest of the issue—nothing more about food, but plenty that is relevant to the ethical and corporate issues I often discuss on this site :

Kneecapping” Academic Freedom: Corporate attacks on law school clinics are escalating.
Robert R. Kuehn and Peter A. Joy, law professors, Washington University in St. Louis

The Costs of a Climate of Fear: Ideological attacks on scientists undermine sound public policy.
Michael Halpern, program manager, Union of Concerned Scientists

BP, Corporate R&D, and the University: New lessons for research universities, thanks to a catastrophe.
Russ Lea, vice president for research, University of South Alabama

When Research Turns to Sludge: Tying strings to sludge is not as hard as it sounds.
Steve Wing, epidemiologist, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A Not-So-Slippery Slope: Rejecting tobacco funding isn’t rocket science. It’s basic ethics.
Allan M. Brandt , historian and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University

The Historians of Industry: What happens when historians enter the courtroom? Mostly, industry rules.
Gerald Markowitz, historian, City University of New York, and David Rosner, historian, Columbia University

Hubris in Grantland: Languor and laissez-faire greet conflict of interest at the NIH.
Daniel S. Greenberg, science journalist

The Moral Education of Journal Editors: Disclosure is a necessary first step toward scientific integrity.
Sheldon Krimsky, urban and environmental policy and planning professor, Tufts University

Diagnosing Conflict-of-Interest Disorder: How Big Pharma helps write the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Lisa Cosgrove, clinical psychologist, University of Massachusetts Boston, and residential research fellow, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University

The Canadian Corporate-Academic Complex: The unhealthy collaboration of corporate funders and university administrators.
James Turk, executive director, Canadian Association of University Professors

Nov 1 2010

Europe food chair resigns industry post

This is a conflict-of-interest story.

Last week, FoodNavigator.com reported that the board of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had reelected its chair, Diána Bánáti, despite evidence that she also sits on the board of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), an industry-funded group that pretends to be a public health non-profit organization.

EFSA, you may recall,is the agency that is under enormous pressure to rule favorably on industry petitions to allow health claims on European package labels.

The EFSA board said:

The Board deplores the unfounded attacks on the independence of EFSA and its Chair recently reported, and concluded that by no means the integrity of the persons involved could be questioned.  However, the Board added that in order to avoid misperception, Bánáti should step down from management positions in any organisations that represent food industry interests, apart from public interests.  Professor Diána Bánáti has resigned from positions which may create a potential conflict of interests with EFSA activities.

ILSI was not one of the organizations from which she resigned.  Evidently, the EFSA Board considers ILSI to be a public health organization.

Within days, however,  Ms Bánáti thought better of it and resigned from the ILSI Board. To my great surprise, I get credit for this action.

Bánáti’s action was that recommended by Marion Nestle, an expert on nutrition and the food industry at New York University, in a Nature news article on the matter—Food agency denies conflict-of-interest claim—who said that were she Bánáti, “she would resign from the ILSI board”….In a statement issued yesterday, ILSI says that it “accepts Professor Diána Bánáti’s decision to resign from the ILSI Europe Board of Directors with regret” and reiterated its insistence that ILSI is not a lobbying group.

Nature is the most prestigious science magazine in Great Britain and, arguably, anywhere, but I thought I was simply stating the obvious.

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