In the face of mounting pressure and a distinctly aggressive attitude from the US sugar industry, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) went ahead on Wednesday and published a report on the relationship between diet, nutrition and physical activity to chronic diseases.
When the draft report was released last month - suggesting no more than 10 per cent of our daily energy intake come from sugar - the US sugar industry vehemently responded, passing the report off as incomplete and lacking strong scientific evidence.
But the WHO fought back yesterday, emphasising the need for countries 'to meet the global challenge to reduce chronic illness,' concluding that a diet low in saturated fats, sugars and salt, and high in vegetables and fruits, together with regular physical activity, could have a major impact on combating this high toll of death and disease.
"This report will help both FAO and WHO devise strategies to promote nutritious diets and healthier eating habits," said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf. "Today, only a minority of people in the world are eating the amounts of fruit and vegetables recommended by this report. Our organisations are facing a strong challenge on how to increase supplies of fruits and vegetables in a way that will allow all people everywhere in the world to have access to them."
The agencies stressed that solutions to the global surge in chronic diseases would require stronger linkages between those involved in health and agriculture, at global, regional and national levels.
One doubts whether 'stronger linkages' will be at all possible with the sugar industry. On both sides of the Atlantic participants with a heavy interest in the movement of sugar have archly criticised the lack of scientific evidence drawn upon for the reports conclusions.
"The report is not based on the preponderance of current science. Instead it is based on only 11 scientific references - one of which is almost 30 years old," said US Sugar Association president and CEO Andrew Briscoe this week. In the UK, the Food and Drink Federation, more conciliatory in tone, than its American neighbour but nevertheless critical, commented :"The FDF looks forward to reading the full report with interest. In its submission on the draft report, the FDF was concerned that it contained many sweeping statements, which were not clearly based on scientific evidence. It was in general over-prescriptive; unworkable in its severity; and contained too many negative messages."
While criticism is totally acceptable in a democratic world, are bullying tactics? In a news piece this week in the UK newspaper The Guardian, the paper highlights how the US sugar industry is threatening to "bring WHO to its knees by asking Congress to stop funding the body unless it scraps the guidelines". According to the article, in a letter to the WHO director-general, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Sugar Association says it will "exercise every avenue available to expose the dubious nature" of the WHO's report on diet and nutrition. This includes a challenge to its $406 million funding from the US and the assertion that taxpayers dollars should not be used "to support misguided, non-science-based reports which do not add to the health and wellbeing of Americans, much less the rest of the world".
Calls by the sugar industry to cancel the launch of the report were ignored by WHO, with the full recommendations published online on Wednesday.
Maintaining a dignified front, Gro Harlem Brundtland said :"Our primary responsibility remains to our Member States and their people. Our consultations with them so far have reaffirmed both the importance of what we are doing, and the range of different problems developing countries in particular face."
'The importance of what we are doing' - these are the signficant words. It is an undisputable scientific phenomenon that chronic illness is increasing on a global scale. While it would be illogical and irrational to suggest that the fault lies at the door of the food industry, much scientific evidence today would suggest that focusing on the diet, in particular curbing the creeping tendency towards obesity, could have a major impact on our overall health.
No dietitian or doctor in the world would claim that being fat is good for the health. WHO's expert report is a bid to find a path to solving this undeniably worrying state of affairs where countries, and by no means just in the western world, are afflicted by increasing rates of obesity and the burden of coping with associated diseases.
While the sugar industry is right to complain if it believes an injustice has been done, publication of the report has also enabled scientists and government bodies across the world to view both sides of the coin and to confirm the value of an independent, international health task force.