Is the British Nutrition Foundation having its cake and eating it too?

Group dedicated to healthy eating is partly funded by the food industry

One of Britain's most influential institutions on diet and health has come under fire over its close links with the food industry.

The British Nutrition Foundation, established more than 40 years ago, advises the Government, schools, industry, health professionals and the public. It says on its website that it exists to deliver "authoritative, evidence-based information on food and nutrition" and that it aims to be "world class in the interpretation and translation of complex science."

However, the organisation's 39 members, which contribute to its funding, include – beside the Government, the EU – Cadbury, Kellogg's, Northern Foods, McDonald's, PizzaExpress, the main supermarket chains except Tesco, and producer bodies such as the Potato Council. The chairman of its board of trustees, Paul Hebblethwaite, is also chairman of the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Trade Association.

Critics say the foundation's dependence on the food industry is reflected in its support for the views promoted by industry and that it is not fully transparent about its funding.

The foundation is holding a conference next month on the science of low-calorie sweeteners, which aims to "separate fact from fiction". The web page for the event says "intense sweeteners have been available as a means of reducing sugar intake for more than a century" but the perceptions of them "can be somewhat negative". The conference aims to "explore the facts behind the stories and see where low-calorie sweeteners fit into today's foodscape."

The web page doesn't say, though the information is available elsewhere on the website, that the foundation is financially supported by Tate & Lyle, British Sugar, Ajinomoto (maker of AminoSweet), and McNeil Consumer Nutritionals (maker of Splenda).

A foundation press release in February said people could shake off the winter blues by drinking more fluids. It didn't say that its donors include Danone (producer of Evian, Volvic, and Badoit), Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Innocent, Twinings, Nestlé, and various yoghurt drink manufacturers. A footnote mentions the food industry as one of the foundation's funding sources.

Joe Harvey of the Health Education Trust, a charity promoting health education for young people, said: "Organisations like the British Nutrition Foundation which want to be seen as offering independent advice should avoid donations from the food industry or be much more up front about them so the public are aware of the involvement. It is naive to take industry money and believe there is no quid pro quo."

The foundation has contracts with the Government and the Food Standards Agency to produce educational materials, including the Licence To Cook website for the Department for Children, Schools, and Families, a recipe book for 11- to 12-year-olds, and aids for teachers. Food companies have been happy to fund these projects.

Tim Lobstein, the director of policy at the International Association for the Study of Obesity, said educational resources produced by the foundation in the past had sometimes been less than critical of the industry. "It did a big piece of work for the Food Standards Agency reviewing influences on consumer food choices which conveniently left out any review of the influence of marketing and advertising techniques," he said.

Oliver Tickell of the Campaign Against Trans Fats in Food said the foundation had produced a briefing sheet on trans fats which was "balanced" but also a submission to the Scottish parliament on a bill to limit trans fats which "essentially said 'do nothing' ". That, he said, coincided with the view of the industry, which opposed regulation. The foundation says it aims to provide swift, expert advice to journalists, and it delivers succinct analysis in a style that suits its audience but does not offend its partners in Whitehall or the food industry. A search for British Nutrition Foundation references in UK newspapers in the past year returned 128 hits, of which only two mentioned that it had industry funding.

Sara Stanner, the foundation's science programme manager, said: "The foundation attracts funding from a variety of sources, including contracts with the European Commission, national government departments and agencies, a wide range of food producers and manufacturers, retailers and food service companies, grant providing bodies, trusts and other charities. The donations we receive from food and drink companies are used at arms length and in a generic sense to supplement the funding we secure from the other sources. Our ability to protect our independence is strengthened by this diversity in funding and centres on our strong governance. We are not pressurised, commercially or politically, to be selective in the repertoire of nutrition topics we address."

She added: "If we engage in any piece of project work that involves support from one of our member companies (or any other industry link), we always clearly acknowledge this."

A longer version of this article appears in the British Medical Journal - www.bmj.com

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