Are there hidden agendas in nutrition research? Part 2

The secrets of how the sugar industry influenced scientific research decades ago was the topic in my last post. But I also promised you more on conspiracy theories, conflicts of interest and stakeholders and what that really means for you.

The guidelines for research sponsorship have indeed changed since the sugar industry’s hidden interference in the publication of scientific research. Disclosure of funding has now become the norm (not that we always hear about it when we read the news headlines about nutrition). But when it comes to the development of government nutrition policy, the influences at play are often not so transparent.

And transparent they should be.

You might think that the government’s nutrition policies and recommendations would be based upon scientific consensus but you would be wrong. Instead the government calls upon stakeholders to provide input. They have input into nutrition guidelines and have played a major role in the development of our food guides. Now it’s one thing if the stakeholder is a health group or association – those whose mandate is to promote good health and those who don’t have a financial interest in the outcome.

But stakeholders include the food industry and trade associations – those with a very definite financial interest in what the government recommends. If this isn’t a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is.

For example, look at the issue of trans fats. Over a decade ago, because of the accumulating bounty of evidence surrounding this toxic man-made fat, Health Canada convened an expert committee to assess the risks. The group recommended regulations for the food industry which would rid the Canadian food supply of these fats. Rather than implement their own expert committee’s recommendations, Health Canada called for voluntary action along with a monitoring program of the progress. The government dropped the monitoring program just over three years later but when it became clear that the voluntary route wasn’t working, the government said it would impose regulations. That’s right – they were going to regulate trans fat out of our food. No steps were taken, though.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the government announced that trans fats would be removed from the food supply over a 3-year period. What were we doing here in Canada? The then Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq rejected any regulation dealing with trans fats as she it created too much of a financial burden for the Canadian food industry.

This was the minister who was supposed to be looking out for the health of Canadians, not the financial health of the food industry.

This is how a stakeholder plays a role in food policy development and regulations.

Another expert committee struck by Health Canada also made strong recommendations about reducing the sodium content in our foods. You can guess what happened to that. Canadian packaged foods have been found to have significantly more sodium than even the same product produced by the multinational food companies in other countries.

Stakeholders at work again.

Fast forward a few years to when Health Canada announced their proposal of creating an “Added Sugars” line on the revised nutrition labels. The government suddenly dropped it like a hot potato and informed Canadians it would not be included in the plans. (Yes, I keep writing about this!).

But who do you think influenced Health Canada in this decision? It certainly wasn’t the scientific evidence (which we now know goes back over five decades ago) or consumers and health groups who overwhelmingly endorsed the concept.

No, it was the stakeholders who have an interest in hiding the information from Canadians.

While there has been a great deal of outrage expressed about the secret relationship between the sugar industry and the Harvard researchers decades ago, we should also be shouting from the rooftops about these stakeholders deciding what is healthy to put on our plates.

Isn’t it time to put Canadians health before the interests of stakeholders?

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Categories: Rosie's Rants, Your Questions Answered

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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2 Comments on “Are there hidden agendas in nutrition research? Part 2”

  1. Byrl Staples
    September 21, 2016 at 7:09 am #

    I think this is criminal. We should not allow companies, government & money control what is healthy for us to have in our food without us knowing it is there. These things should be added to our nutritional label. Needless to say they should not be there in such amounts in the first place.. How can we pressure them to change & do what is needed?

  2. September 21, 2016 at 4:35 pm #

    While who knows what the government will listen to Byrl, I do believe we should keep trying to put pressure on them. I suggest writing to your MP, the Health Minister, Jane Philpott and the Prime Minister’s office. It’s time to put health first!!

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