First, we found Big Pharma funding Diabetes Australia. Then we discovered Big Sugar – Kellogg’s, Sanitarium and Nestle – funding Dieticians Association of Australia and driving its information campaign via press releases from federal government ministers. Now we find Big Sugar has infiltrated the medical profession with “education materials” and free software. The question must be asked if all this is flaming the epidemic in Type 2 diabetes. Story by Maryanne Demasi.
It is said that if you educate one General Practitioner (GP), you educate all their patients. And nobody knows this better than the cereal industry.
Cereal giants, Kellogg’s and Sanitarium, have infiltrated doctors’ clinics nationwide, using GPs to promulgate industry propaganda, disguised as dietary advice. As part of an ongoing investigation into how the processed food industry influences public health policy, we reveal ways in which it has pervaded the medical system.
PR over science
Kellogg’s enlisted the help of Australian PR firm Porter Novelli presumably to address declining sales after the global cereal giant posted a huge loss in earnings.
Kellogg’s is brazen about its strategy to establish close ties with ‘healthcare professionals’. According to its own website, Kellogg’s Nutrition went into “full-on creative mode” to develop information packages for GPs to disseminate to patients.
The cereal company boasted that 2,000 GPs across Australia requested the delivery of Kellogg’s sponsored information kits. The kits contain hundreds of factsheets authored by the company, often citing its own studies as evidence. The upshot? A push for a nationwide increase in the consumption of grain fibre.
This has provoked the ire of some doctors within the medical fraternity. “It’s a worry that a breakfast cereal manufacturer is seen as some sort of authoritative figure when it comes to dietary advice,” says Perth-based GP, Joe Kosterich. “It is a form of advertising that gets credibility through the doctor’s clinic”.
Propaganda hiding in plain sight
Food industry marketing directly to the medical profession can also be covert. This investigation has uncovered “patient education” factsheets which are embedded within the computer software used by the majority of Australian GPs — and they are authored by Sanitarium, whose products include Weetbix and Oat Clusters.
The purpose of this software (Best Practice Software) is to maintain quality electronic patient records securely, produce prescriptions and track appointments. However, it also includes Sanitarium sponsored ‘health information’ that doctors can disseminate to patients.
Some GPs have sounded the alarm bells over the credibility of the information such as the dietary advice for people with type-2 diabetes. The Sanitarium factsheet explains that diabetes is an “inability of the body to control normal blood glucose” and that dietary carbohydrates “are broken down into glucose” and yet the advice to patients is to base their meals on carbohydrate foods like “wholegrain breads, cereals & grain foods” which wreaks havoc on their blood sugar levels.
Sydney GP, Dr David Lim says: “To advise a diet high in carbohydrates (and therefore high in glucose) to my patients who already have high blood glucose levels is bordering on insanity”.
Dr Kosterich agrees. “Putting a high amount of carbs into the body of a person with type-2 diabetes who has a problem with processing carbs, is akin to putting fuel on the fire and then offering medications as the water to put out the fire”.
Chief Executive Officer of BP Software, Dr Frank Pyefinch, confirmed that there was no commercial contract between the company and Sanitarium but that the cereal manufacturer approached them “asking whether we would be interested in distributing the material. No other food manufacturer has ever asked us to distribute patient education information”. Dr Pyefinch also confirmed that there had been no complaints from doctors about the patient information, which has not been updated since 2005.
Why are GP’s obtaining dietary advice from cereal manufacturers?
The national peak body representing GPs, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) said it was “not aware” that around 2,000 GPs had sought nutritional information from cereal manufacturers.
The RACGP did not respond to specific questions but said: “Specialist GPs have a solid understanding of the importance of nutrition and the RACGP produces evidence based resources to support GPs. We encourage Australians to consult their GP on the benefits of a healthy and balanced diet and follow independent evidence-based advice provided by the Australian Dietary Guidelines”.
However, some doctors reject the RACGP’s claim that the Australian Dietary Guidelines are “independent and evidence-based”.
“Dietary guidelines and government-endorsed advice should be free from industry interests [But] many doctors would be disappointed to learn that food companies sponsor the Dietitians Association of Australia [who contributed to] our current dietary guidelines,” says Brisbane GP, Brooke Wilson.
“GPs are busy people, they just don’t have the time to drill down and find all these hidden connections to food industry and conflicts of interest,” says Kosterich.
What about dietitians?
GP’s are encouraged to refer patients to an Accredited Practicing Dietitians but there are concerns this does not overcome issues about independent expert advice.
Kellogg’s openly admits it supports a series of education workshops for newly graduated dietitians. Each graduate was greeted with Kellogg’s branded “goodie bags” containing a range of Kellogg’s products, including the fibre kits which were distributed to GPs.
The fallacy being sold is that Australians need to increase their fibre intake through the consumption of foods like cereal grains. However, unprocessed, whole foods like half an avocado contain more fibre (6.5g) than two slices of bread (3.8g) or a cup of oatmeal (3g).
Corporates make profit
Corporations have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders and therefore an obligation to promote their products. But the public deserves health information from truly independent sources, not from corporate-spun junk science. There are regulations in place to mitigate conflicts of interest between drug companies and doctors, now there needs to be greater scrutiny of the interactions between doctors and the food industry.
Dr Maryanne Demasi is an investigative medical reporter with a PhD in Rheumatology. Follow her on Twitter @Maryanne Demasi.