Underlying health conditions like obesity, heart disease and diabetes have emerged as key factors in fatalities due to novel coronavirus, COVID-19. In one study, more than 99% of COVID-19 fatalities occurred among people who had underlying medical conditions.1,2
Among the fatalities, 76.1% had high blood pressure, 35.5% had diabetes and 33% had heart disease.3 What's more, another study revealed that among 18- to 49-year-olds hospitalized due to COVID-19, obesity was the most prevalent underlying condition, just ahead of hypertension.4 Chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity have a lot in common, including the fact that they're often fueled by poor diet.
Processed foods, junk foods and soft drinks are key culprits in the rise of such chronic diseases, and therefore have a key role to play in COVID-19 deaths. Yet, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, multinational food and beverage corporations are interfering with public policy and influencing the development of dietary guidelines.
In order to protect public health, this conflicted influence must be curbed, according to a report published by the campaign group Corporate Accountability.5 Meanwhile, health experts are calling out ultraprocessed foods as key players in COVID-19 deaths and calling on public health guidelines to warn the public of their risks.6
Junk Food Giants Stymying Public Nutrition Policies
According to Corporate Accountability's report, more than half of those appointed to the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) have ties to the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a not-for-profit organization established by a Coca-Cola executive 40 years ago.7
DGAC is supposed to be an independent committee, which reviews scientific evidence and provides a report to help develop the next set of dietary guidelines for Americans (2020 to 2025). However, its extensive ties to ILSI all but ensures the committee is anything but independent.
ILSI has been exposed as a shill for the junk food industry, and internal documents have revealed ILSI embedded itself in public health panels across Europe and the United Nations in an effort to promote its own industry-focused agenda to raise profits at the expense of public health worldwide.8
The Corporate Accountability report further examined ILSI's "revolving doors and conflicts of interest" with critical government policy processes, including not only formulating the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) but also updating national food composition databases. It explains:9
"The report also chronicles the front group's deep connections with industry, its ties to research it has helped produce, and to individuals it has relationships with. The picture it paints makes a compelling case for Big Food to abandon ILSI and similar front groups in the interest not only of public health, but also a less deceitful relationship with its investors."
DGA is essentially the go-to source for nutrition advice in the U.S., directing what more than 30 million U.S. schoolchildren eat at school and driving the nutritional advice given to new mothers, seniors, veterans and other beneficiaries of nutritional education and meals offered by the federal government.
"But the DGA's mandate is even broader," Corporate Accountability noted in their report. "It aims to promote health, prevent chronic disease, and help all U.S. residents reach and maintain a healthy weight."10 Yet, by partnering with junk food corporations, it ends up doing the opposite:11
"Seventy-five percent of the individuals involved in formulating the U.S. government's official dietary guidance have food industry ties. Fifty-five percent have ties to ILSI, which was founded by a former Coca-Cola executive and is funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald's, General Mills, Cargill, Monsanto, the National Dairy Council, the International Tree Nut Council and a host of other global purveyors of junk food and drink."
Junk Food Corporations Control Academia, Nutrition Guidelines
The Corporate Accountability report presents several key findings that highlight ILSI's concerning ties with industry, and how its research, government interference and other activities are negatively affecting public health policy. Among them:12
ILSI's journal, Nutrition Reviews, does not always disclose ILSI affiliations and conflicts of interest. Further, nearly 40% of ILSI North America's publications from 2013 to 2017 received support or funding from ILSI but did not disclose it. Of the approximately 60% of publications that did contain a disclosure statement, "no conflict of interest" was still sometimes declared
The DGAC chairs and vice chairs of the Pregnancy and Lactation Subcommittee are affiliated with ILSI
ILSI claims that it doesn't lobby, but it gave direct guidance to the Argentine government regarding updates to its National Food Composition Database
ILSI India produced a study in partnership with government research institutions that disparaged and misrepresented health effects of traditional foods instead of focusing on the adverse health effects of soda and processed foods
ILSI North America's board of trustees violates Principle 1 of its conflict of interest policy, as more than 50% of its board holds an affiliation with the private sector
Rather than dismantling ILSI Mexico after it violated the group's code of ethics under a Coca-Cola executive's leadership, it was absorbed by ILSI Mesoamerica in 2019, which is also under the leadership of a Coca-Cola executive
One example given of lack of disclosures in Nutrition Reviews was a 2017 review titled "What is the Appropriate Upper Limit for Added Sugars Consumption?"13
The researchers looked into the "significant restrictions on upper limits of sugars consumption" put forth by scientific organizations like the World Health Organization and American Heart Association, concluding that their findings "should inject a note of caution into restrictive guidelines" and noting that "the scientific basis for restrictive guidelines is far from settled."14
One of the review's co-authors, however, failed to disclose an important conflict of interest. James Rippe was affiliated with ILSI Mexico, leading a forum titled "Current Evidence on Sweeteners and Health," which received $10 million in funding from the U.S. Corn Refiners Association to establish that sugar consumption had no impact on heart health.15
Another glaring example was published in Annals of Internal Medicine. The study, "The Scientific Basis of Guideline Recommendations on Sugar Intake," was funded by ILSI and concluded, "Guidelines on dietary sugar do not meet criteria for trustworthy recommendations and are based on low-quality evidence. Public health officials (when promulgating these recommendations) and their public audience (when considering dietary behavior) should be aware of these limitations."16
Although the journal did reveal that ILSI was the primary funding source for the study, according to Corporate Accountability:17
"Its findings were so self-serving, it prompted criticism from candy-maker Mars (then an ILSI member). Co-author, and 2010 DGAC member, Joanne Slavin did not disclose her financial ties with Big Food and Beverage, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé."