Sticky fingers of food industry on government ultra-processed food review
Late last year, the UK Government asked its Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) to review the latest evidence on food processing and health. This review was welcomed by the Soil Association, who recently revealed that the government was promoting ultra-processed products via their own healthy eating tool – the Food Scanner app. The report from SACN can be read on the government’s website. Rob Percival, Soil Association Head of Food Policy, responds:
The sticky fingers of the ultra-processed food industry can be seen all over this position statement from the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN). While we’re pleased that SACN has prioritised this review, and has acknowledged that ultra-processed foods are of “concern”, we’re disturbed that the committee’s conclusions may have been skewed by industry ties, conflicted financial interests, and a narrow framing of the science.
Parts of the review are welcome. SACN acknowledges that a rapidly growing body of evidence has consistently associated consumption of ultra-processed foods with adverse health outcomes, and the committee has committed to keeping the science under review. Some of SACN’s suggestions are entirely sensible, such as the recommendation that the National Diet and Nutrition Survey should be revised to better gather data on national intake of ultra-processed products. Government should act on this recommendation and invest in further research to better understand the risks posed by ultra-processing.
But the committee is also guilty of losing the wood for the trees, failing even to raise concern about how ultra-processed foods have overtaken their own nutritional advice. The UK Government’s dietary guidelines recommend that adults and children should base their diets around (minimally processed) plant foods, such as vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and pulses. Most people in the UK are failing to eat such a diet, precisely because these foods have been displaced by ultra-processed products. The average child’s diet is more than 60% ultra-processed, and rates of obesity and ill health are rising sharply in turn. We don’t need another evidence review to conclude that our diets have become dangerously unbalanced. SACN is oddly silent on case for re-balancing the diet and addressing the corporate capture of children’s food.
"Playing into the hands of corporations who care more about profit than public health"
These omissions should prompt us to look more closely at the composition of the committee. SACN has sixteen members. One is a paid consultant working for Cargill, Tate & Lyle, and CBC Israel (a manufacturer and marketer of fizzy drinks such as Coca-Cola and Sprite); two are in receipt of funding from the meat and dairy industry; one is a shareholder in Sainsbury’s; and five are members of the American Society of Nutrition, which is funded by Mars, Nestlé, and Mondelez. Among SACN’s members is the Chair of International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Europe, a body that receives funding from some of the world’s largest food companies, such as Barilla, Cargill, Danone, General Mills, Mondelez, and PepsiCo; and two individuals with financial relationships with the British Nutrition Foundation, an organisation funded by British Sugar, Cargill, Coca Cola, Danone, Greggs, Kellogg, KP Snacks, Mars, McDonald’s, Mondelez, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Tate & Lyle, and Tesco. Two SACN members have been funded by Danone, one of the largest ultra-processed food companies in the world; one sits on the council of the Nestlé Foundation; and another is a former employee of Unilever, with current shares in the company worth “more than £5000”.
These declared interests do not imply corruption or bias on the part of SACN members, but they illustrate how pervasive are industry ties at the interface of science and policy. Food companies have spent decades exploiting this contested space to frame the research and policy agendas reductively around nutrients and single food components, at the expense of the bigger picture. The science of ultra-processing challenges this narrow framing, inviting a shift in focus – from nutrients to foods, and from foods to dietary patterns and food system drivers. It’s disappointing that SACN has adopted the industry’s narrow nutrient-centric framing in their review, inadvertently playing into the hands of corporations who care more about profit than public health.
SACN’s review must not provide licence for further dither and delay in policymaking. Other countries including Canada and France are taking action after being advised that the weight of evidence merits a strong policy response, and the UK Government has ‘no regrets’ actions at their fingertips. Dietary guidelines should be revised to promote the consumption of fresh and minimally processed foods. The marketing of ultra-processed snack foods to infants and children should be much more tightly regulated. And, as a priority, government should remove its endorsement of ultra-processed products on the NHS Food Scanner App – it’s perverse that the Department of Health is actively encouraging parents and families to eat ultra-processed snack foods and energy drinks, presenting these as a ‘healthy choice’.
Is the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition fit for purpose?
Is SACN fit for purpose? The question demands asking, given the growing evidence that population health is shaped by commercial drivers and the power dynamics of the food system. The committee’s ties to the food industry are deeply problematic. The case could be made for purging all industry ties from SACN and expanding the committee’s remit and expertise to encompass the broader commercial and social determinants of health. In place of an advisory committee on nutrition, we should arguably have a committee on ‘nutrition, food systems and health’, equipped and empowered to address a much bigger picture.