Professor Susan Jebb is an academic at the University of Oxford, one of Britain’s leading experts on obesity and the role of sugar in our diets. And it just so happens that her research has received £1.3million of funding from sugar companies.
At least according to a report in the British Medical Journal, which found that there are financial links between a number of obesity scientists and leading sugar firms. Unsurprisingly, people are outraged. Can you trust a scientist to be objective about the effect of sugar on our health and the development of obesity when they’re being paid by the people who profit from the stuff?
Can we trust scientists who are paid by the companies they’re researching?
No, according to most commentators; the voice of denunciation is probably the strongest. Fiona Godlee, editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal, claims that the “network of relationships between key public health experts and the sugar industry…create bias” and “weaken public health efforts to tackle the harmful effects of sugar on the diet.”
Professor Simon Capewell agrees: “I was shocked, quite honestly; this is heart-breaking news and basically it appears a lot of people have been seriously misled.” The links, he suggested, create an “inherent conflict of interest” between the profits of leading sugar firms and public health.
Professor Capewell then described it as “like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank,” which is an exciting image.
On the other hand, there are valid arguments to the contrary. Under-fire scientists like Ian MacDonald have described the implications of bias as a “fundamentally wrong” insult, and suggested that the critics “need to learn some proper science.”
He might be right. The review of sugar guidelines he led last year was “tougher on the sugar than the World Health Organisation report is, or any other report is,” going so far as to halve the current recommendations.
“We’re world-respected scientists whose opinions are provided to the government and to industry; and those people use that information as they see fit.”
Professor Jebb argued along the same lines, pointing out that a report funded by Coca-Cola proved that the popular beverage was ineffective as an aid to weight loss.
“As a scientist my independence and personal credibility are crucial to me. Moreover, everything I do is aimed at improving public health.
“If a company has genuine reason to believe their product or ingredient or programme works then it seems appropriate to me that they should fund a trial to prove it, ideally conducted by independent scientists.”
What does it all mean?
Whoever’s right, the debate draws attention to some of the many complex political issues surrounding dietary recommendations, as well as healthcare more generally. Can you still trust sugar recommendations? Or is eating right tricky enough without having to question the validity or what you’re being told?
Or perhaps you agree with the scientists. Maybe sugar companies do the right thing by funding trials of their products to find out if they have health benefits, rather than unethically claiming so without any evidence.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments.
Here’s the original report: https://www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.h231