Everyone’s a food expert—even when they get the facts so badly wrong

By Katherine Rich, CEO of NZ Food & Grocery Council

- Last updated on GMT

Everyone’s a food expert—even when they get the facts so badly wrong

Related tags: Nutrition, Food

“Thought leadership” is the new fashion for some corporates. It has been described by some as providing ideas that intrigue, challenge and inspire, but for others the phrase can sound more than a little bit Orwellian.  

However, for those who consider it as a positive, the term conjures up the notion of lending intelligence and logic into developing ideas for further debate.

So it’s disappointing when the term is used to push what seems to be a particular agenda.

A case in point: some banks, not content just with managing the world’s money, are now attempting to affect world policy settings with projects they summarise as this notion of “thought leadership​”.

Bragging rights

An example was the release this month of surely well-intentioned research from Credit Suisse, entitled “Sugar – Consumption at a crossroads​”.  The report was undertaken by the bank’s Research Institute, which describes its role as “thought leadership​” from “the world’s foremost experts​”.

Having built up such expectation on its cover, it’s therefore a great shame the report inside does little more than provide an unbalanced view of the world’s obesity problem and the role sugar plays in the human diet.

In fact, it’s disappointing on so many levels, but the main disappointment is that its conclusions are based on a very limited selection of scientific work.  

The report is not a peer-reviewed published scientific paper and should not be treated as such. It does not provide an objective review of scientific evidence and does not enlighten interested readers further in the debate. 

Anti-sugar propaganda

Sadly, it seems Credit Suisse has immersed itself in anti-sugar propaganda and made only a cursory attempt to provide balance.

Let me give some examples:

  • Consumption​” data presented in the report is actually sugar supply data, which is quite a different measure. Supply data also does not account for significant non-food use (e.g. as biofuel) or wastage (up to 40% in some countries).
    The report states that “consumption​” of added sugar increased by 46% over the past 30 years. However, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, per-capita refined sugar supply that is available for human consumption actually shows​ consumption has in fact decreased a fraction from 196 calories per day in 1979 and to 194 in 2009.
  • International authorities that have examined all the evidence on sugar and health do not point to sugar as a direct cause of obesity, type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome. This includes the WHO, the European Food Safety Authority and the US Institute of Medicine.  This fact is acknowledged in the report, but then ignored when the report goes on regardless to recommend strategies to limit sugar intake.
  • Contrary to the report’s claims, there is no evidence to show the use of natural non-caloric sweeteners is directly responsible for a reduction in obesity, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome in populations.
  • Claims that liquid and solid “sugar calories​” are treated differently by the body are presented as settled science when in fact this is currently based on a small number of short-term experiments which don’t relate to everyday living conditions. There is currently no scientific consensus on this issue because convincing evidence is lacking.
  • The report’s assessment of influencer opinion seems to be based entirely on a very leading set of questions posed to a group of medical professionals who, by their own admission, do not understand the nutritional scientific literature regarding sugar.

Industry broadside

Such factual inaccuracies are poor form coming from a financial institution that works with cold, hard (and one would hope accurate) numbers.

It’s not clear why Credit Suisse saw fit to launch such an attack on the food industry. Certainly if I was an executive in the commercial banking section dealing with clients, I’d be more than annoyed by the release of a document that could so successfully annoy the entire global food industry in one fell swoop by presenting such misleading information.

Sure, it’s relevant for economists to examine trends in public opinion, but they overstep the line when promoting themselves as ”food experts​”, only to cherry-pick the science to promote controversial government and public policy recommendations. 

It is also so disappointing that the authors seem to have embraced the anti-sugar religion absolutely and repeated many of the ill-informed discussions about sugar as if they were fact, where actually the science is not settled. Their use of the word “toxic​” is a particular example, being the description favoured by US anti-sugar proponent Robert Lustig. 

It is particularly troubling that the report goes out on a limb to call for global sugar taxes.  Credit Suisse becoming the cheerleader for sugar taxes is about as popular with the food industry as I would be if I appointed myself a banking “thought leader​” and called for governments to nationalise the world banking system.  

Stick to its remit

It’s hard to understand why Credit Suisse is promoting government policies to levy the populace when this is so clearly outside its mandate.

The fact is that sugar taxes have not been successful anywhere around the world as a way of curbing obesity. And where they have been implemented, such taxes do little more than generate extra revenue for governments and hurt the world’s poorest people. 

They hurt the poorest because in order for taxes to significantly affect purchasing behaviour, the tax hikes have to be massive. Taxing sugary beverages specifically remains unproven as an intervention, with most reviews surmising the tax would need to be unpalatably steep for it to have even the smallest effect on waistlines.  

The main result would predictably be higher food prices and a larger grocery bill for families. I can hear what New Zealand families might say at the prospect of higher costs at the supermarket checkout, and it won’t be: “Thanks, Credit Suisse​!”

On this, the report‘s writers glibly note that “the tax is likely to be a regressive one​” (e.g. affecting more people at the lower levels). However this might be positive not negative because they suggest that the world’s poorest tend to be the fattest.

It’s fair to assume that those consumers already struggling to cover their family’s food bills would not appreciate this kind of patronising nonchalance and pure economic view of their lives, particularly from a banker.  

This might be a harsh summation, but bankers calling for high food taxes are unlikely to be a winning campaign in the court of public opinion.

As an aside, in the years I have worked for the food industry (and before that in politics) I have heard many times the idea of food taxes. But I have never once heard the idea of a food tax – be it for sugar or fat – being championed by anyone who was not at the time comfortably drawing a six-figure salary. 

It seems much easier for those enjoying financial security to call for higher food taxes which lead to higher food prices which affect the lives of a nation’s poor the most.

Throwaway comments

Elsewhere in the report, other throwaway comments stand out, such as “soft drinks are not essential to our diet​” and “water is always a viable alternative​”.  Though technically true, comments such as these fail to take into account real lives led by real people, or the social value that all foods and beverages bring to our lives beyond the provision of essential nutrients.  

Most foods we consume are technically not essential to our diet. Carrots are good for us, but are carrots specifically essential to the human diet? Other foods eaten for enjoyment in moderation, such as jelly, chocolate, pavlova and apple pie, are also not essential to life, though they do provide enjoyment for people, and no one denies they’re acceptable as treats.

While the Credit Suisse report would no doubt dismiss all these treat foods, wouldn’t the world be a far less joyful place without them? My daughter is 11 today and I would be about as popular as a tetanus shot if I serve nothing at her birthday party except carrot sticks, wholegrain bread and water. This is what the authors of this report seem to be promoting.

The report completely overlooks the importance of a balanced diet and eating in moderation, preferring to falsely point the finger at sugar, which is just one component of a diet.

On the whole, one would question whether it is the place of Credit Suisse to even rule on these complex public health issues, which clearly require detailed examination of all the evidence, for and against, and consideration of all factors involved.

Thoughtless leadership

Credit Suisse had the opportunity to provide helpful “thought leadership​”, but sadly failed to publish an objective analysis. The bank even criticises the WHO for not taking the state of public confusion around sugar seriously enough.  

I would hope that the world would listen to the evidence-based position of WHO—which, as the global agency responsible for reviewing all available evidence on food and health, has an enormous wealth of expert guidance in this field—rather than this subjective thinking presented in the report.

Finally, potentially the most insulting aspect of the Credit Suisse report is their assumption that food manufacturers are not taking trends into account when planning their businesses.  

The food manufacturers I work with understand that they live in an environment where discerning consumers are becoming more health-conscious, and are rightly demanding a quality, nutritious food supply.  

The food industry is very aware of this and continues to respond and plan accordingly by adopting a range of measures to maximise the nutritional quality of foods, while balancing price and taste to also address key consumer needs.  

Any business not already changing with the times and keeping a very sharp eye on scientific evidence is destined not to fare well in the future. 

As per the WHO, though, we must base our actions on evidence and expert consensus and not reports like this one from Credit Suisse.

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Opinion dressed up as fact ?

Posted by John Watt,

n his compelling and frightening book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the food giants hooked us, journalist Michael Moss recounts when Australian psychologist Robert McBride addressed a 1991 food industry gathering saying, ''The bliss point is a powerful phenomenon and dictates what we eat and drink more than we realise,'' adding, ''Nutrition is not foremost on people's mind when they choose their food''.

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Truth is subjective

Posted by Ilan,

Irrespective of what one feels about sugar it is incredibly disturbing when facts are selective used and distorted to suit a particular viewpoint. More so when it is an agency such as Credit Suisse who are positioning themsleves as "worlds formost experts". Fortunately there are still some people around such as this author to keep them honest. Well done.

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you are dreaming!

Posted by dean,

this is one denies they are acceptable treats(jelly etc)..well i am denying it,so theres 1....&,though 'technically' true you say,well then it is true isnt it?
i could go on for days actually..YOU are the agenda pusher,no one i know would deny that blah blah blah

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