Scientists on panel defending ultra-processed foods linked to food firms

<span>Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA</span>
Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

Three out of five scientists on an expert panel that suggested ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are being unfairly demonised have ties to the world’s largest manufacturers of the products, the Guardian can reveal.

Recent studies have linked UPFs such as ice-cream, fizzy drinks and ready meals to poor health, including an increased risk of cancer, weight gain and heart disease. Global consumption of the products is soaring and UPFs now make up more than half the average diet in the UK and US.

On Wednesday, at a media briefing in London, a panel of expert scientists suggested consumers should not get too hung up on concerns raised about UPFs. They could sometimes even be good for people, they said.

The briefing, organised by the Science Media Centre, generated headlines including “Ultra-processed foods as good as homemade fare, say experts”, “Ultra-processed foods can be good for you, say nutritionists”, and “Ultra-processed foods can sometimes be better for you, experts claim”.

Three of the five participants on the panel have either received financial support for research from UPF manufacturers or hold key positions with organisations that are funded by them. The manufacturers include Nestlé, Mondelēz, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Unilever and General Mills.

Prof Janet Cade, of the University of Leeds, told the briefing that most research suggesting a link between UPFs and poor health “cannot show cause and effect” and that some items falling into the UPF bracket were foods “we would encourage such as wholemeal bread, wholegrain breakfast cereals, yoghurts and so on.

“And in fact, processing can actually help to preserve nutrients. Advice to avoid all ultra-processed foods would be at odds with elements of current guidance and could have an impact on wider nutrient intakes …

“People rely on processed foods for a wide number of reasons, so the bottom line would be that if we remove them from our diets, this would require a huge change in the food supply, which is really unachievable for most people, and potentially resulting in further stigmatisation, guilt, etc in those who rely on processed foods, promoting further inequalities in disadvantaged groups.”

Cade is the chair of the advisory committee of the British Nutrition Foundation, whose corporate members include McDonald’s, British Sugar and Mars. It is funded by companies including Nestlé, Mondelēz and Coca-Cola.

Prof Pete Wilde, of the Quadram Institute in Norwich, told the briefing: “Homemade cakes or cheesecakes are not considered processed but they contain high levels of sugar, fat and possibly salt and [are] rapidly digested energy. Are they any more healthy than a commercial version of that product?”

Wilde has received support for his research from Unilever, Mondelēz and Nestlé.

Prof Ciarán Forde, of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, told the briefing that advice to avoid UPF “risks demonising foods that are nutritionally beneficial”.

Forde was previously employed by Nestlé and has received financial support for research from companies including PepsiCo and General Mills.

There is no suggestion that the scientists failed to declare potential conflicts of interest. Each provided declarations of interests before the briefing, which the Science Media Centre shared with journalists. However, there was no mention of their links to UPF manufacturers in any of the media coverage.

“Evidence is very clear that to protect our health and prevent diet-related disease, we should be reducing consumption of UPF, especially products high in fat, salt and sugar,” said Barbara Crowther, the manager of the children’s food campaign at Sustain, the food and farming advocacy group. “Suggesting that some UPFs can be labelled healthy is not only confusing for people but potentially very dangerous for public health.”

Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian and senior lecturer at Aston medical school, said: “It is a problem for the public when messages and the media seem to swing from one side of a debate – UPFs being bad to UPFs being OK. This results in consumers being left confused. It also misses the point of what we should be eating more of, eg vegetables, fruit, pulses etc.

“It also is unhelpful when experts’ links to industry are not clear, not because their views are not valid but because in doing so it sets up a false impression that industry and their experts are bad and those saying the opposite are good.”

Cade told the Guardian that her British Nutrition Foundation advisory role was unpaid. “The BNF is keen to have independent scientists representing the evidence. That is what I aim to do in that role. I believe that to improve our food system we need to have discussion with all parties.”

Related: Ultra-processed foods: the 19 things everyone needs to know

Wilde said his integrity was “completely intact” and his “views or opinions are not swayed” by his links to food companies. “We were simply trying to get a balanced debate around this issue, and such headlines don’t always help, but if it gets a healthy public debate going around the subject and people get a better understanding of the arguments then I guess it will be worth it.”

Forde said: “I don’t think anyone made claims that all UPF are good or bad, but rather than the current system of classification is unsuitable to make widespread public health recommendations. The recommendation to avoid all ultra-processed foods may also lead consumers to remove nutritionally balanced foods from their diets.”

Fiona Fox, the chief executive of the Science Media Centre, said: “The SMC regularly runs background briefings where journalists can question leading scientists on topical issues so that the public get good quality evidence. We choose the scientists based on their expertise, reputation and area of research.

“The scientists who spoke at our briefing on ultra-processed foods are publicly funded academics. However, senior scientists these days are encouraged by universities and funders to have contact with a wide array of partners including industry so that scientific research has impact on wider society. We make sure that any links with industry are openly declared to journalists.”