Who do you rely on for advice on healthy food choices? Part 1

We all want to believe that our governments, scientists and medical professionals are giving us independent expert advice on making healthy food choices. But are they?

In March of this year the UK’s Health Food industry body (the HFMA) reported on a Soil Association investigation into the NHS Food Scanner ‘app’. According to the NHS this is a tool to help consumers make healthier food choices. But a recent Soil Association investigation discovered that the NHS ‘app’ has been recommending families consume ultra-processed junk food, despite the link to life-threatening health risks.  

The ‘app’ has been describing biscuits, fizzy drinks, instant noodles, cakes, chocolate, puddings and crisps as ‘good choices’ for a healthy diet, often marking energy drinks with a ‘High-Five’ status.  When the Soil Association tested the ‘app’ – which has been downloaded more than half a million times – it found that 80% of sample products bearing the ‘Good Choice’ badge (or similar) endorsed ultra-processed foods which are linked to life-shortening health issues.  Families are being misled to waste money on junk food that carries serious health risks.

The Soil Association considers that the Government’s “poor advice” – encouraging families to consume these products – is “near criminal”, and only benefits “the food corporations profiting from these junk foods”. The organisation has launched a petition urging the Government to stop promoting unhealthy foods as healthy options, calling for “true leadership” and updated public dietary advice.   

In 2021 in the USA, the TUFTS University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy unveiled its Food Compass. The Dean of the School is the architect of the White House Conference on Nutrition and Health, and the TUFTS Food Compass purports to be a “science-based tool to rank the healthfulness of foods” – “an updated more accurate food pyramid, providing for one of the most comprehensive nutrient profiling systems in the world”.  

But in July 2022 The Journal of Nutrition published a report by Nina Teicholz, an independent journalist, whose research uncovered that the Food Compass actually promotes ultra-processed junk food – scoring potato chips, corn chips and peanut butter cups higher than eggs, cheese and ground beef.  It fails to discriminate for common nutrient deficiencies in processed foods, exaggerates the risks associated with animal-source foods, and underestimates the risks associated with ultra-processed foods – favouring fake food over natural food with for example fake cheese and meatless chicken ranking higher than the not-so-profitable natural foods they are mimicking.

According to the Food Compass, nearly 70 brand-named highly processed cereals from the three dominant US food manufacturers are ranked twice as high as eggs cooked in butter or a piece of plain whole-wheat toast, and egg whites cooked in ultra-processed vegetable oils are reported to be more healthy than a whole boiled egg. The researcher describes the Food Compass’s algorithms as “recommending a diet that is a get-sick, diabetes diet, a high-carb, sugar-laden, candy-coated highway to ill health”.

In addition there are major conflicts of interest among the members of the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the US public health body the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the leaders of universities; with many having strong and long lasting links to food manufacturers, pharmaceutical corporations and the lobbyists for both. 

Nina Teicholz – alongside many independent nutrition experts internationally – believes that the world of nutrition has become so enmeshed with corporate interests that corporate-funded ‘experts’ do not even realise that their ‘expert views’ are dangerously close to industry propaganda. For nearly 100 years there has been a growing worldwide encroachment of corporate influence into the nutrition field – for example in the USA the major US food processing companies founded the US Nutrition Foundation to funnel money into US universities for profit-targeted nutrition research.

This growing corporate influence on nutrition research is mirrored by the powerful pharmaceuticals with their worldwide funding of medical education and drug research – all of which hugely downplays and marginalises the crucial primary role in our health of consuming natural whole foods and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Are food industry profits the reason our ‘experts’ are not encouraging us to eat a traditional natural whole food diet ?

Part 2 of this article will explore sources of independent expert healthy eating advice.