Jan. 19: One of the UK’s leading nutritional experts, tasked by the government with proposing new limits for sugar consumption, is working as a paid adviser to Coca-Cola and Mars.
Ian Macdonald chairs a government panel examining the health impact of sugar consumption, amid growing concern that excessive amounts in food are fuelling the obesity epidemic.
It will recommend to the UK government later this year what level of sugar in our diet is healthy, helping to frame the national guidance.
However, the Nottingham University scientist confirmed last week that he provided monthly advice to Mars “at board level” and also advised Coca-Cola on diet, obesity and exercise. He said the annual payment of £6,100 from Coca-Cola went into his personal income — it “goes into (my) tax return” — while the larger payment from Mars helped to fund his university research.
The disclosure of his links to the companies, in an investigation by Channel 4 Dispatches to be shown on Monday, prompted demands this weekend that Macdonald should resign from the chairmanship of the panel because of the “unacceptable” conflict of interests.
Simon Capewell, a Liverpool University professor and founding member of the Action on Sugar campaign, said Macdonald’s role was untenable. “I am shocked,” he said. “This is a scandal for public health. It’s like putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank. It’s clearly an outrageous conflict of interest.
“If Ian Macdonald doesn’t step down (from the panel), there will be real concerns that their recommendations will be prejudiced by commercial factors rather than scientific public health priorities.”
It will be the second time that Macdonald’s interests have drawn him into controversy. Macdonald stood down from a paid advisory role with Coca-Cola and Mars in 2009 after concerns were raised with health officials about his potential conflict of interest.
Dispatches has, however, established that he started working for the two companies again in 2012 after successfully seeking approval from officials.
Macdonald said: “I do understand people saying, ‘You are so close to those companies you should not have anything to do with gathering the evidence for UK policy to be decided’. I just disagree.”
MacDonald, who sits on the Coca-Cola European Scientific Advisory Council and the Mars Scientific Advisory Council, said he believed it was important to have a dialogue with industry. He said he never discussed any aspect of his government work on sugar with Coca-Cola and Mars.
The details of Macdonald’s close links to the food industry have emerged after a campaign was launched this month by Action on Sugar which claimed sugar was the “new tobacco”.
Macdonald is known to be sceptical of some of the claims made by the anti-sugar lobby. He says the evidence does not support the claim that fructose has a specific and adverse impact on health.
His work for the food industry and the work of his panel is now likely to come under close scrutiny.