The Influence of Big Food, the SACN and the Carbohydrate & Health Report

The Influence of Big Food, the SACN and the Carbohydrate & Health Report

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Why did we get a new Eatwell Guide in 2016?


According to their documentation, Public Health England “keeps dietary recommendations under review as part of its role in maintaining the evidence base and promoting evidence based public health.”


This is a questionable statement as we think there is plenty of evidence to suggest the UK’s dietary recommendations as laid out in the Eatwell Guide are not optimal to improve public health, but lets forget that for a minute.


Before we get into the history behind the new Eatwell Guide, let’s talk a little about processed food and the companies that produce it. In 2013, Oxfam produced a report, detailing the 10 most powerful food & drink companies in the world. This report was called Behind the Brands, and you can read the report here. 




These 10 Companies Control the World’s Food


  1. PepsiCo
  2. Coca-Cola
  3. Danone
  4. Mondelez
  5. Kraft Foods (have now merged with Heinz)
  6. General Mills
  7. Kellogg’s
  8. Mars
  9. Nestle
  10. Unilever

Behind the brands

Source: Oxfam, Behind the Brands, 2013


All 10 of these companies produce processed snack foods, processed cereals or fizzy drinks. All of the foods produced by these companies are high in sugar and refined carbohydrates.


None of these companies want us to stop eating sugar or refined carbohydrates, or indeed processed food.


If you were in charge of one of these companies, I am sure you would want to be able to influence dietary guidelines for the various countries in which you sold your products.


OK, back to the Eatwell Guide.


Public Health England committed to review healthy eating messages in July 2014 in light of, the then draft, conclusion of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s (SACN) “Carbohydrates and Health” report.


So to understand the reason we got a new Eatwell Guide in 2016 (replacing the Eatwell Plate which was issued in 2007), we need to look at the SACN’s “Carbohydrates and Health” report.


Who are the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN)?


The SACN advises on nutrition and related health matters. It advises Public Health England and other UK government organisations.


SACN members are appointed as independent scientific experts on the basis of their specific skills and knowledge. There are also consumer and lay members.


Below we have listed the members, with their declared conflicts of interest from the 2013, 2014 and 2015 SACN annual reports.


The committee is chaired by Dr Ann Prentice, Director at MRC Human Nutrition Research.

2015: Council Member, Nestle Foundation

2014 & 2015: Research Funding from Weight Watchers

2013 & 2014: Research Funding from Coca-Cola


The deputy chair is Professor Peter Aggett, Professor of Child Health and Nutrition.


The Members are:

  1. Professor Paul Haggarty, Head of Lifelong Health, Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen

2014 & 2015: Shareholder, Café Direct, GlaxoSmithKline , Astra Zeneca


  1. Professor Timothy Key, Deputy Director, Cancer Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford


  1. Dr David Mela, Science Leader at Unilever R&D Vlaardingen, the Netherlands

2013, 2014 & 2015: Employee & Shareholder, Unilever


  1. Professor Ian Macdonald, Professor of Metabolic Physiology at the University of Nottingham and Director of Research in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences

2015: Consultant, Nestle Research Centre

2015: Member of Nutrition Advisory Board, and Health and Wellbeing Committee, Mars UK/Europe

2014 & 2015: University Lead in Strategic Link with Unilever, Scientific Advisor to Unilever

2013: Advisor, Coca-Cola


  1. Dr Stella Walsh, Consumer member

2015: Advisor, Kraft-Heinz Company

2013 & 2014: Consumer Representative, Heinz


  1. Dr Anthony Williams, Formerly, Reader in Child Nutrition and Consultant in Neonatal Paediatrics, St George’s University of London

2014 & 2015: Shareholder, GlaxoSmithKline


  1. Professor Hilary Powers, Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry, Head of Human Nutrition Unit, Deputy Head of Department of Oncology, University of Sheffield

2013 & 2015: Research Funding from Kellogg’s


  1. Professor Angus Walls, Professor of Restorative Dentistry and Director of the Edinburgh Dental Institute

2014 & 2015: Consultant, GlaxoSmithKline


  1. Professor Susan Lanham-New, Head of the Nutritional Sciences Division, University of Surrey

2015: Consultant, Kellogg’s

2014: Consultant, Kellogg’s, Danone, GlaxoSmithKline


  1. Professor Julie Lovegrove, Professor of Human Nutrition, Head of the Hugh Sinclair Unit of Human Nutrition and Deputy Director of the Institute for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Research, University of Reading

2015: Research Funding from Danone

2013 & 2014: Research Funding from PepsiCo & Sugar Nutrition UK


  1. Professor Ian Young, Professor of Medicine and Director of the Centre for Public Health at Queen’s University Belfast

2015: Consultant, MSD (Pharmaceuticals)

2014: Research Funding from Unilever & The Sugar Bureau


  1. Professor Harry McArdle, Deputy Director of Science and the Director of Academic Affairs at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen


  1. Ms Gill Fine, Public Health Nutritionist

2014 & 2015: Shareholder, Sainsbury’s

2015: Trustee and scientific governor, British Nutrition Foundation (link to blog post)

2013: Project Work for Tesco


  1. Professor Monique Raats, Director of the Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre at the University of Surrey


  1. Mrs Gemma Paramor, Lay member


  1. Professor Charlotte Wright, Professor of Community Child Health, University of Glasgow 


So you can see we have a nice list of members, influenced in one way or another by 8 of the top 10 biggest food companies selling sugary, refined and processed foods.


How is this allowed?!


Out of the 18 people making up the SACN, only 6 have no declared conflicts of interest, whilst the other 12 have links with Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mars, Nestle, Kellogg’s, Danone & Kraft-Heinz.


SACN Conflicts of Interest


Surely, anyone can agree that a committee advising the Government on the nation’s health & wellbeing should be made up of scientists with no links to the food companies making the sugary, refined and processed foods that are in fact harming our health! It’s just total craziness.


Public Health England were well aware of these conflicts of interest, as you can see from this letter, written by Alison Tedstone (Director of Diet & Obesity, Public Health England) to Ann Prentice (chair of SACN):


Letter about Ian McDonald

Letter about Ian McDonald 2


You can read the full back and forth here. 


David is David Mela (Unilever), Julie is Julie Lovegrove (Danone, PepsiCo, Sugar Nutrition UK) and Ian is Ian McDonald, the chair of the working group for the carbohydrate report (Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestle, Unilever).


Despite the concerns, the 3 individuals were allowed to continue as part of the working group!


Ian McDonald was asked to step down from his industry advisory roles (rather than being asked to step down from the SACN working group), but was later allowed to resume his advisory roles because the carbohydrate report was taking longer than expected.


In January 2014, Channel 4’s Dispatches ran an investigation into the SACN and the Carbohydrate and Health working group. Professor Macdonald had an opportunity to defend himself on the programme. He said he never discussed any of his Government work with Coca-Cola or Mars.


McDonald denied being biased. However, there are studies such as this one that show industry funding of nutrition-related scientific studies may bias conclusions in favour of the sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health.


In 2013 a paper was published examining research on sugary drinks and their impact on weight gain. They found those reviews with conflicts of interest were five times more likely to present a conclusion of no positive association than those without them.


Among those reviews without any reported conflict of interest, 83.3% of the conclusions were that sugar-sweetened beverage consumption could be a potential risk factor for weight gain. The best large randomized trials also support a direct association between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and weight gain or obesity.


So let’s look at the “Carbohydrates and Health” report, produced by the SACN. This report was used as the basis for reviewing the old Eatwell Plate and releasing the “new” Eatwell Guide, which according to the website “is a policy tool used to define government recommendations on eating healthily and achieving a balanced diet.” (Basically, the Eatwell Guide contains the official Dietary Guidelines for the UK population).


Carbohydrates and Health (SACN, 2015)


sacn report


The review of the evidence on carbohydrates and their impact on health began in 2008 and took 7 years to be completed. And surprise, surprise, with the conflicts of interest we have mentioned, in 7 years worth of work the committee failed to make many significant findings, only drawing a few weak conclusions such as:


“Overall, the evidence from both prospective cohort studies and randomized controlled trials indicates that total carbohydrate intake appears to be neither detrimental nor beneficial to cardio-metabolic health, colo-rectal health and oral health.”


Basically, we can’t really say either way whether carbohydrates are good or bad for us.




“There is insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion on the association between starch intake and weight gain.”


Despite their inability to come to any firm conclusions, the recommendations made in the report are still that everyone should base their diet on carbohydrates: “It is recommended that the dietary reference value for total carbohydrate should be maintained at an average population intake of approximately 50% of total dietary energy.”


This translated to the current advice in the Eatwell Guide:


Eatwell Guide Advice


We should be eating wholegrain breakfast cereals, sandwiches and pasta, wheat three times a day and all processed foods.


The report did find some links between sugar and health problems. They concluded that sugar causes tooth decay (we all knew that anyway) and that eating more sugar makes you eat more overall.


They also found that the evidence points to fizzy drinks (sugar-sweetened beverages) causing weight gain in children and teens (although they don’t state this applies to adults) and also increase the risk of type-2 diabetes.


PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are probably not too concerned however, since it states in the Eatwell Guide “Swap sugary soft drinks for diet, sugar-free or no added sugar varieties.”


You would think a better message if you really want to improve public health would be: avoid soft drinks and instead drink water, milk, tea, coffee or fresh juice. Why is there any encouragement to drink processed soft drinks, even of the diet variety, when there is evidence that even diet versions are detrimental to health?


Eatwell Guidelines


The BMJ recently ran a series of articles on the sugar industry and it’s connections to nutrition scientists. Scientists don’t like being accused of being biased. Professor Tom Sanders, Emeritus Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, King’s College London, said:


“The nutrition community consists of a relative small pool of scientists, whereas the food industry is among the largest sectors in business in the UK. It is not unreasonable to expect the food industry to seek advice from best nutritional scientists and to outsource research questions to them.


“The implied alternative in the BMJ article is to have a committee made up of members who are not tainted by connection to the food industry. In my experience such individuals lack the required experience and expertise and are likely to be incompetent.


Never mind the fact this is just a ridiculous statement, Professor Sanders research has been funded by sugar giant Tate & Lyle. Yet another conflict of interest and an expert opinion we struggle to trust.


And while we ponder the outcome of this 7 years in the making carbohydrate report, we have to wonder why no similar report was commissioned to look at the role of fat and it’s impact on health?


Why look at carbohydrates but not fat, especially considering there is just as much controversy around fat as there is around sugar?


Despite the role of fat not being reviewed, the new Eatwell Guide leaves the reader with no doubt that fat is the enemy, containing 14 references of the need to reduce fat in the diet. Apparently the only fats we should be eating are processed unsaturated oils and margarines. Of course, Unilever are thrilled about this!


Eatwell Guide Unilever


If you are as outraged about all of this as we are, sign our petition: Demand that the UK Dietary Guidelines are No Longer Influenced by the Food Industry


change org petition


For more on all of this, read our other blog posts:


  1. Shocking New ‘Eatwell’ Guide Heavily Influenced by Processed Food Companies!
  2. Should the British Nutrition Foundation be Giving Nutrition Advice?
  3. The Brazilian Dietary Guidelines Put Ours to Shame!
  4. How to Eat Real Food on a Budget; 5 Simple Tips PLUS Shopping Lists
  5. Just Eat Real Food!


Look out for our book “Eatwell?” which is coming soon!




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