This is a guest post by Fiona Lethbridge, Senior Press Manager at the SMC.
It’s not every day an SMC background briefing makes it onto the front page of the Guardian. ‘Scientists on panel defending ultra-processed foods linked to food firms’ was the headline of the exclusive which reported that 3 out of 5 of the scientists who spoke at an SMC briefing on ultra-processed foods have ties to the makers of such foods.
First some context. This was what we call a ‘Background Briefing’ – a staple of the Science Media Centre where we gather leading scientists to answer questions from science, health and environment reporters on topical science stories. The starting point for these briefings is a weekly SMC staff meeting where we discuss which science topics are high-profile in the news and look through requests for briefings from journalists, scientists and press officers and assess which ones may be most useful. Recent backgrounders covered wildfires, the new anti-obesity drugs, El Nino, mitochondrial replacement therapy, social media and mental health, and the breakthroughs on Alzheimer’s disease. The SMC doesn’t have a position on these topics but sees these briefings as opportunities to inject science, evidence and expertise into big stories where there is no shortage of opinions.
We work hard to find scientists who are actively researching in the field, have a track record and reputation for their science, and have the right expertise to answer the variety of questions being thrown up by the media and public discussion – in this case scientists with expertise in nutrition, food science and food safety. One of the speakers at this briefing on UPF introduced himself as having worked for almost 40 years researching the structure of food. We ask the scientists to take part in these press briefings for us. While these backgrounders are on record and journalists are free to report, the primary purpose isn’t to generate news stories but to help inform the specialist journalists on a subject they are likely to be covering for some time, to answer their questions, and to introduce them to a group of scientists who are willing to make themselves available to them in future. Given the tendency for editors and general news reporters to turn to celebs, campaigners, or commentators, we feel that connecting science reporters to some top-quality researchers to add to the mix is important.
It would be an over-simplification to describe this is a pro-UPF press conference – there was plenty of nuance during the hour-long briefing. The experts were clear that evidence shows that high intakes of UPFs is often associated with health harm while also saying that the evidence is not as black and white as processed = bad, unprocessed = good. In approaching and selecting experts for the briefing we went for advice to the kinds of people you would expect a science press office to approach, including leading diet and nutrition scientists on our database of experts, the Food Standards Agency, the Quadram Institute (formerly the Institute of Food research), different universities with respected food science departments, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, the Nutrition Society and so on. The request was for scientists who work on or assess different aspects of nutrition and food processing who could speak about the current state of the evidence. Over the course of speaking to senior scientists in these areas, we were picking up a different tone to some of the media narrative. Scientists who have dedicated their careers to researching healthy diets and investigating the links between food and ill health were telling us that they were wary of some of the more dogmatic claims about the harms of UPFs being made by people without a background in food science. This sense that the range of voices from mainstream nutrition science were not being sufficiently heard by the public confirmed that this was a good subject for an SMC backgrounder.
These reservations were raised at the briefing. While the panellists agreed that many processed foods are also high in fat, salt, and sugar, which have been shown to be implicated in obesity and ill health, they argued that the definition of UPFs can be a blunt tool and that there can be both ‘healthier’ and ‘less healthy’ foods across several of the processing groups. They also highlighted some of the limitations of studies in the area, partly because they are observational and rely on people self-reporting, but also because so far, the research has not been able to tease out whether it’s the processing itself that is causing harm or the nutritional content of the foods. That these issues came up at the briefing was fine by us – the simple message ‘processed bad, natural good’ is seductive but science is always more complicated than that. Boring, I know – but thankfully the UK is blessed with a bunch of specialist science journalists who excel at reporting on the messy, complex, and nuanced science discussed by researchers. The stories that emerged later that day reflected much of that nuance, albeit with the usual reductive headlines.
So how did one of our regular backgrounders end up as front-page news? The exclusive rested on a claim that 3 of the 5 scientists on the panel have ties to companies that make UPFs. Given that most large food companies process food in some way, this is basically saying that these scientists have links with food companies. As the journalist pointed out in the piece this was openly and transparently declared in line with the SMC’s policy: ‘Each provided declarations of interests before the briefing, which the Science Media Centre shared with journalists.’
When given the opportunity to comment by the Guardian, we checked in with a few heads of communications at top science universities and research institutes to check that our understanding of such links is up to date. Joan Concannon, Director of External Relations at the University of York, replied: ‘These days most scientists recognise that the research questions they’re working on are complex, require a significant array of interdisciplinary contributions and that this very often includes a need to work with industrial and other external partners to advance their work. It’s not really a question of “universities imposing” a demand to work with industry so much as a shared recognition that in many areas of scientific endeavour, having relationships with a wide array of partners including industrial partners offers really tangible benefits.’ Another head of comms said, ‘certainly most senior scientists or heads of department would be working with industry which is increasingly seen as important for having an impact on society.’
This all fits with the SMC’s experience. From scientists working on new vaccines to those developing the next generation of greener pesticides to those researching alternative proteins to help us get to net zero, more and more scientists are partnering with the companies that will turn academic knowledge into products. But we’ve spent years lobbying science funders and research institutes to communicate more on this. The public remain wary of scientists with ties to industry, so if government and the scientific community think that scepticism isn’t justified and these partnerships are in the public interest, they need to tell us all why.
Fiona Fox has written often about the role of media in this, always emphasising the need for journalists to question and scrutinise these links – especially given they are growing. However, news outlets across the board will be regularly running stories involving scientists with similar links to those of our panel. That these COIs specifically got front page billing perhaps tells us more about the polarised nature of the debate on UPF than anything else. My worry is that it’s when topics become polarised and toxic that we most need to hear from the best scientists. Dismissing their research or their views because of openly declared links to industry that are common to most areas of science is hardly likely to encourage more of them to enter the fray.
And if they don’t, it’s the public who will suffer – we must never lose sight of that. Because however boring and dry the science might seem next to attractive rhetoric and simplistic messaging, people deserve to understand all the complexities of the big picture. If we want a healthy public, we need a well-informed public – and having the best scientists speaking openly and honestly is how we get there.