Sugar Coated Lies: An International Food Lobby Group’s Attempt to Shape Public Health Opinion in India
Akshay Naik 18 January 2020
Recently, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and under it the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), had conducted a survey on consumption levels of sugar in seven Indian metro cities. The survey, which was sponsored by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), was well represented in the media, with stories such as “Men like sweet, Women love sweeter”.
With an innocuous sounding name like ILSI, one would not suspect the sponsoring organisation to be an “American nonprofit that has been quietly infiltrating government health and nutrition bodies around the world”. But in fact, ILSI being the lobbying arm of the food industry is the reason why, the Alliance Against Conflict of Interest (AACI) has strongly objected to the country’s top health agency conducting a survey sponsored by them. 
AACI is an alliance of organisations and individuals working in various sectors - doctors, lawyers, women’s and children’s health groups. In it’s letter written to the ICMR and the NIN under it, the alliance called it an “incompatible partnership” and said that “ILSI has been pursuing policy influence in India and elsewhere, in particular, with respect to sugary foods and beverages”.
ILSI has been in the media frequently over the years for all the wrong reasons. In September 2019, the New York Times (NYT) had published an exposé on ILSI detailing how the shadowy agency group was influencing food policy around the world. NYT reported that ILSI was “created four decades ago by a top Coca-Cola executive and now has branches in 17 countries. It is almost entirely funded by Goliaths of the agribusiness, food and pharmaceutical industries”.
ILSI was also the organisation that championed tobacco interests during the 1980s and 1990s in Europe and the United States. Over decades the organisation has operated under the radar, but is now “coming under increasing scrutiny by health advocates in the United States and abroad who say it is little more than a front group advancing the interests of the 400 corporate members that provide its $17 million budget, among them Coca-Cola, DuPont, PepsiCo, General Mills and Danone,” reports NYT. 
It should not come as a surprise at this point that ILSI would then have a history of championing corporate interests. In a report, the World Health Organisation criticised ILSI in 2001, for its role in financing studies that cast doubt on the dangers of smoking and again in 2006 the agency barred ILSI from “activities involving the setting of standards for food and water” after its stealth efforts to sway policy in favour of industry came to light.
The letter written by AACI points out the obvious conflict of interest in having ILSI sponsor studies conducted by government health bodies, when they have been caught in nefarious activities trying to influence public health opinion and policy across the globe. 
“We wonder what strategic direction ICMR-NIN, the premier research agency of India, is giving to the people of India when this survey’s findings projected in the media may potentially perpetuate more sugar consumption while pretending to be concerned about non-communicable diseases,” the letter by the AACI reads.
Concerned about increasing the non-communicable disease burden in India, AACI has urged the government to adopt and follow a higher standard of principles when associating itself with organisations such as ILSI. They have asked the ICMR to respond to questions such as conclusions of the study, how was a conflict of interest managed and plans to use this study for policy development in public interest. 
Besides traditional media, even the scientific community has come out in force against ILSI. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) recently published a study  that detailed how Coca Cola has shaped obesity science and policy in China. In her report, author Dr Susan Greenhalgh, a Harvard academic and China scholar says “in China, Coca-Cola has exerted its influence since 1999 through a Chinese offshoot of ILSI”.
In China, the organisation has established itself as “a bridge builder between government, academia and industry, providing the latest scientific information for policy decisions on nutrition (especially obesity and early childhood development), food safety and chronic disease prevention and control,” Dr. Greenhalgh writes in the BMJ. Sponsoring studies to contradict findings on the detrimental effect of artificial sweeteners found in carbonated sugary drinks, ILSI has quietly set itself up as a powerful lobby group for Coca Cola in China. 
The true nature of ILSI has been publicly made available through several articles, exposés and reports in the media as well as in scientific journals. Surprisingly, organisations in India such as the ICMR are still conducting surveys sponsored by ILSI and two years ago, even Niti Aayog had chosen to include ILSI in their working group on nutrition policies. 
One would have thought the government would do a background check on those it involved, to safeguard against vested interests hijacking public policy.
In spite of such abundant evidence of multinational companies and their fronts like ILSI playing a dubious role in defeating or diluting regulation of the food, beverage and even tobacco industry, we are continuing to see several ministries and top government bodies associate with ILSI. 
4 years ago
Good Article.
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