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Why I Welcome “Big Food” At the Canadian Obesity Summit

sharma-obesity-fat-dietingIn our blog posts today, my good friend Yoni Freedhoff and I discuss our respective views on the issue of including “Big Food” as sponsors for the 3rd Canadian Obesity Summit, beginning next week in Vancouver (May 1-4).

To be entirely clear, our posts reflect our personal views. I certainly have no intention of speaking on behalf of the Network, its Board of Directors or its Scientific Committee.

Although Yoni and I agree on virtually all aspects of obesity prevention and management, the one area where our opinions clearly differ is in our approach to confronting and engaging the food industry.

While Yoni takes a brilliantly polemic activist position on this, I firmly believe in the merits of constructive dialogue between ALL stakeholders, which in my view is exactly what the Summit should be about.

In fact, the very mandate of the Network, which was founded in 2006 with the support of Industry Canada, has always been to engage ALL sectors (especially industry!) to work towards solutions to Canada’s obesity problem.

Thus, although many would rather see the Obesity Network slip into an advocacy role, calling on governments, health authorities or others to implement policies for or against whatever this or the other group envisions as “the solution”, this has never been the role of the Network.

Rather, the Board of Directors of the Network has always emphasized the Network’s role in engaging and fostering dialogue between ALL relevant stakeholders.

Accordingly, the sponsors and exhibitors come from a wide range of sectors including government (CIHR, PHAC, etc.), non-government organizations (Heart and Stroke Foundation, Canadian Diabetes Association, Michael Smith Foundation, etc.), trade organizations (Dairy Farmers, Food and Consumer Products of Canada, Canadian Beverage Association, etc.), and industry including pharma (Novo Nordisk, Lilly), surgery (Ethicon Endo Surgery), weight-loss industry (PGX, Bariatrix Nutrition, Nestle Health Science) and food companies (Coca Cola, McDonalds).

Given the particular importance of the food landscape, it is indeed notable that this year’s Summit, for the first time, includes the very companies that are often presented as the “poster children” of what is wrong with our nutritional landscape, namely Coca-Cola and McDonalds.

Critics may say that this is nothing more than a blatant exercise in “health washing” their brands and trying to avoid government regulation.

But, if simply supporting the Canadian Obesity Summit would be enough to “health wash” companies, there should have been no shortage of “Big Food” lining up to support the summit. Everyone from Pepsi, General Mills, Kellogs and Kraft (not to mention Tim Horton’s, Boston Pizza, Burger King, Booster Juice, and countless other companies) should have been clamouring for attention – all of these companies and brands could sure use some “health washing” when it comes to the issue of obesity – to my knowledge, all declined their participation.

Indeed, only Coca-Cola and McDonalds were prepared to step up to the plate and face the music.

And face the music they will – not only does the Summit feature sessions and speakers (including Yoni) who will not hesitate to openly express their distaste for the likes of Coke and McDonalds – but many attendees may well find the very notion of Coke and McDonalds’ presence at the summit contentious.

I, on the other hand, would find an obesity conference without the engagement of “Big Food” a rather lame exercise. After all, when Coca Cola and McDonalds make changes to their products, services and practices, they affect the health of millions of Canadians.

To their credit, both Coca Cola and McDonalds have recognized that they have to change with the times and are taking the first cautious steps in the right direction.

No doubt what many would look at as a glass that is four-fifths empty, I tend to look at as a glass one-fifth full – but then, that’s me.

Thus, I find it only fair that they be given the chance to present their side of the picture at the Canadian Obesity Summit. Others have as much chance to present their views and I do not expect them to be shy or even attempt to seek consensus.

So, what does the presence of these companies mean for attendees at the Summit?

As far as the scientific content of the Summit is concerned, not much – the program was overseen by the independent Scientific Committee of the Network – all sessions sponsored by industry or interest groups are clearly identified as such.

As for the opportunity to exchange views and engage in dialogue, I certainly look forward to the lively debates and arguments that will hopefully truly represent the full range of opinions and positions.

With this, the Network will do nothing more than fulfill its original mandate, namely, to provide a forum for dialogue between ALL relevant stakeholders.

Wolfsburg, Germany


  1. I absolutely agree and support your position. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. I wholeheartedly agree with the necessity for “Big Food” to be included in the Obesity Summit. We as a society are not going to go backwards as far as convenient eating is concerned. In many cases, home prepared foods (from scratch even) are too high in saturated fats and salt unless the recipes followed are from a specific health targeted source, and they usually are not especially if they are recipes that have been handed down. The food industry must step up to the plate and be a true partner in developing solutions. – Will there be conflicting priorities? Yes of course there will be. Will there be outliers who never step up to the plate? Yes, of course there will be. However, completely excluding such a large stakeholder because of the unwillingness of the few would only keep us all mired in conflict.

    As a separate point, it would be beneficial to include the education system in this as well. Nutrition as a specific subject should be taught in school starting at the elementary levels by teachers with specific Nutrition education.

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    • You make a good point about including education in nutrition and cooking skills – there is indeed a whole symposium on this strategy sponsored by Health Canada at the Summit.

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  3. Andrea and Paulette, don’t you think it would be appropriate when commenting to mention that you both are consultants to the food industry?

    That’s not to say your opinions aren’t valuable or even that you’re wrong, but it would seem to me it’d be an important disclosure to make when commenting.

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  4. Kudos! Well said and I could not agree more. Many obesity professionals share this opinion yet few of us are willing to speak up. Some who have have been subjected to personal attacks by colleagues. It is refreshing to see 2 colleagues, friends, rationally discussing this important topic. I wish CON well and look forward to a growing acceptance of partnering WITH the ‘food chain’ and non-food contributors to obesity (screens, smartphones etc) to arrive at solutions as opposed to out of hand rejection of all positive efforts by food companies as being nefariously intended.

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  5. Processed food, the kind sold by McD andCoke is the equivalent of predigested food. Some of the work of converting “food” into smaller bits called nutrients is already done for the eater. It is not even that it is processed that is the problem but rather that it is available everywhere we go. No matter what Coke or McDonalds do to improve the nutritional profiles of their food, it will always be too available to eat quickly which is a disaster for humans who have been evolutionarily equipped to guard against starvation. I for one, am appalled by their presence at the summit. I have come to realize that “health” is nothing more than another marketing tool for the food industry and it is the only reason they are interested in health at all – in order to sell more of their nutritionally naked food. What we really need is a limit to the number of these outlets, to ban advertising and to be able to protect ourselves from the ubiquitous marketing that is almost impossible to avoid. It is naive to think you will get anywhere by including them in the discussion about solutions. You may like the people in these companies but their unambiguous goal is to make money and they have the millions to make it happen.

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  6. I of course agree with Dr.Sarma. However to be supported by Industry Canada and not embrace one of the largest sectors of GDP income (Agri-food) seems not be a very good strategy for continuing the Network.
    The Health Industry spends as much of the GDP as the Agri food industry produces. Surely we need to work for alignment in goals and that means having informed and effective policies and actions.
    Fraser Mustard and John Frank wrote an article a few years ago in which they argued that the agri-food sector has done more for health and wealth than any other sector since the industrial revolution. Medicine has done much less and is a business providing service.

    The 10 largest food companies touch 4 -5 billion every day. And that will continue to increase. Not to work with them on global heath issues is in my opinion, irresponsible.

    But alas, Yoni will point out as he has done in the above that I have collaborated and consulted with the agri-food sector for over 40 years. I admit to being guilty. On the other hand it should be note that many that do so are also highly successful by academic measures that are independent of these engagements. I have held peer-reviewed research grants for over 40 years and am proud of my success in training over 100 highly accomplished scientists and leaders who have learned the art of critical thinking.

    So thank you Dr. Sarma for keeping an open mind and encouraging engagement of the food sector.

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  7. Industry is damned if they do and damned if they don’t. When they try to make an honest change, they are attacked as “healthwashing.” When they don’t, they are atacked as evil.

    And I am NOT an industry consultant. I see this happening with all social “issues.”

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  8. Dr. Sharma, you seem to be skating around some of the issues. There is a difference between Big Food being present as a voice in the debate and Big Food being present as a corporate sponsor, and in this counterpoint you’ve mainly addressed the former while not fully examining on the far reach that this conflict of interest could present. That’s the crux of the issue, and one that you haven’t quite addressed. Health washing is just the tip of that iceberg.

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  9. Yoni, Yes I am a Food Industry Consultant. When I saw this post on FB this morning and posted my opinion as I would to any open forum of interest, my profession was not a consideration as I was expressing a long held personal opinion with which my industry colleagues variously agree or disagree. Fortunately, as you know with the internet it is very easy to find someone and their profession if you are interested.

    Arya, I am glad to hear of the Health Canada symposium at the summit. There must be a long term strategy to proactively address the future and education in nutrition and cooking skills are both necessary pieces. Also as children do affect family practices with the learning they bring home from school, gradual improvements at home are a likely and beneficial result.

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  10. ECB makes a strong point. Dr. Sharma’s point appears to be that it is important to engage the food industry in COM summits and to involve them in discussions. I absolutely agree. Nothing will be achieved by simply lobbing criticisms at a distant industry that isn’t given the opportunity to respond and make their own case. However, there is a huge difference between engaging and accepting money for support. Big Food should certainly pay their way (i.e. attendence costs for their staff, speakers, etc.) but their involvement should be should be limited to scientific discourse, period. There is simply no role for logos, advertisements or marketing. Nothing that the companies can or should contribute to important discussions at this meeting should require their marketing/PR department’s input. Sponsorship is an unnecessary bargain in this case that acts as potential dampener at best, and opens CON to conflicts of interest at worst. Perception is important.

    These companies spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising. If they are serious about supporting the science of obesity, then set up an arms-length foundation that allows independent research into obesity, administered by people who care about the quality of science and who allow publication of results no matter the outcome.

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  11. Sorry, I can’t agree on this. It would be like asking big tobacco to sponsor a cancer symposium. Optics are bad, and the underlying reasons probably aren’t much better.

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  12. The Big Food industry is here to stay and it is about (their) money not health, and certainly not the health and well being of society. It seems that it is up others to debunk (Yoni Freedhoff for example) what is actually going on, and some others (Arya Sharma) to see what is up for negotation. It is clear to many that fast food contributes to obesity and the many co morbities resulting from this disease. But, the question remains, what can we do to change this obesity epidemic? We are trying, but it appears we are not to be gaining ground. I look foreward to hearing more from the Summit.

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  13. Talk to the food manufacturers by all means, but when you take their money you lose credibility. The reasonable assumption is that as soon as you take money you have a conflict of interest and any advice you subsequently give is tainted.

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  14. Yeah, I too agree with the comments made by Julian skinner. By not participating in the summit, other companies cleared that they promote the obesity. They would have at least participated in the summit to show the world that, they also are in a path of change. It’s a kind of applause for two giants for their participation.

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  15. I disagree 100% with Dr. Sharma, and agree with Dr. Freedhof and others above who feel that allowing industry to speak is one thing, but taking their money quite another. It is strange to think that somehow having ‘dialogue’ with industry will cause them to change their ways – they will change when they see that it is in their interests to do so, not one second sooner. Accepting their money also may have another, more subtle impact, which is to discourage attendance by some who disagree strongly with the idea of industry sponsorship – this may, in fact, be one of industry’s goals – to co-opt and discredit any organization critical of them.

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  16. I honestly dont understand why any corporations identified as “Big Food” should be given a space to present its view and opinions in a scientific conference on Obesity. It is crystal clear that such corporations are using highly-designed tactics to manufacture their public image, including front groups, lobbies, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits, and industry-funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt. In an opening speech at the 8th Global Conference on Health Promotion in Helsinki ( 10 June 2013), Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, made it very clear that such tactics “also include gifts, grants, and contributions to worthy causes that cast these industries as respectable corporate citizens in the eyes of politicians and the public. They include arguments that place the responsibility for harm to health on individuals, and portray government actions as interference in personal liberties and free choice”. This comes from a high order, not me.

    I attended the 3rd Obesity Summit in Vancouver, and this is exactly what I saw and heard from two Big Food corporations speeches. The danger of giving these corporations a space to speak is that they foment a false debate, challenging the scientific committee on the very causes of obesity, literally saying to the scientific community: “well, we disagree on the cause of obesity, but we respect your opinion”. This is unacceptable. Of course, Big Food must be part of the solution when it comes to implementing changes; but they cant be part of the scientific debate, they cant be part of the scientific research, and mostly, they cant be part of the development of public policies. There is a clear and unequivocal conflict of interests….and this is the position of the WHO director, not my own opinion, let me say again. When we know that Big Food uses tactics designed out of psychoanalysis, can we really not expected their discourse at a scientific meeting as the ultimate way to manufacture consent amongst the scientific committee? Lets be honest. One last word on something in which I am personally involved in my research: product reformulation is a health reduction strategy, it is not, and cannot be, a health promotion or health prevention strategy…it may work partially, only if its regulate by the State (again, Dr Chan speaking), but cant be part of the “Big solution”. This is because Big Food products are not foods by themselves, and we know that food processing at the industry level is not the same at food processing at the domestic or artisanal level. Home made dishes and meals made with real foods can be diverse and rich, they are the basis of nutrition, and the future of well-being and good health. Of course there are challenges to home cooking: but we first need to acknowledge its value and then we can focus on the way to make it happen. And its not a step backward, quite the contrary (an argument often used by Big Food to say that high-technology and agribusiness is the only way to the future). Healthy diets are derived from sustainable food systems, this is the lesson we get from history. Eating foods, freshly prepared with a minimal level of processing, is realigning ourselves with nature and our history. Its also something that need to involved everyone, men, women and children. Big Food products are to be seen as “goods” which role is not to feed, but to appreciate once in a while on special occasions and circumstances (because sometimes, just sometimes, we really dont have time to cook!). Once we fully recognize the status of Big food products as “food products” and not “food”, then the debate of including them or not in a scientific conference becomes obsolete, no?

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  17. Hi Dr Sharma, thanks for engaging in this debate!

    I will concede that the food industry (especially the fast-food and snack-food makers) SHOULD be included in this process, I disagree that they should be there to inform concensus on obesity prevention and treatment…

    I think the role that they should be playing is to invite them to offer solutions to the problems that the use of their products create and to hear the input of scientists and clinicians in order to honestly evaluate what options are available to them to make their products healthier

    The problem with conferences like this is spin…. once the interaction becomes a sponsored “discussion”, the science often falls by the wayside as marketing supplants facts

    The format needs to be something like this;

    Thanks for attending this panel Mr Bigger Burger, here’s a few facts about your product that we’d like to discuss

    Your “Triple Bypass with Cheese” combo meal (burger, fries and drink) contains the following (this is a real, mainstream Canadian fast food menu item btw);

    Protein 75g
    Fat 88g Saturated 34g Trans 4g Poly 17g Mono 32g
    Carbs 196g Sugar 99g Fibre 9g
    Sodium 2530mg

    Total Calories 1950

    So, Mr Bigger Burger, I think that we can all agree that this is NOT a safe meal for someone to consume at one sitting, so can you identify some areas where your company can make some improvements?

    Now the ball is in Bigger Burger’s court….this is not a debate on whether this is a good product or not… you skip that debate entirely, since it is a foregone conclusion… the
    discussion goes DIRECTLY to possible solutions

    The danger lies in allowing some room to debate the issue of whether a food product is good for consumers or not because then you get the wiggle room that allows people to create guidelines that declare apple pie to be a healthy fruit equivalent

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  1. Why I Oppose McDonald's and Coca-Cola's Sponsorship of the Canadian Obesity Network Summit | Get Fit Bookmark - [...] [When writing this post I emailed CON's scientific director and hopefully still my friend Arya Sharma and invited him…

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