More spin, Less in the way of truth from Public Health England

The latest nanny statist smackdown comes from where you would least expect: the BBC.

In an extraordinary episode of BBC 4 show More or Less, the unscientific claims from Public Health England are finally challenged head on in a train wreck interview with PHE head of nutrition science, Dr Louis Levy.

In an extraordinary exchange, show presenter and economist Tim Harford put to Levy the findings of PHE’s own expert report which found that there is a lack of evidence that sugar consumption is problematic for adults. Levy initially responds by repeating the claims that sugar is problematic for weight gain because a higher sugar intake increases calorie consumption.

Harford, however, does not let him get off lightly:

Harford: I'm just looking at the [Public Health England’s 2015] committee report and it does say there's insufficient evidence of appropriate quality to draw conclusions on the impact of sugar intake on the majority of cardiometabolic outcomes in adults including bodyweight. That's from the committee's own report.

Levy: Yeah. So I was talking when I gave you my statement, I was talking about the link particularly for children. I mean, there was good evidence for children and there’s no reason to believe that the evidence would be any different for adults, although obviously as it said, there wasn't as much evidence for that.

Harford: So I did read the evidence correctly then they didn't manage to find the link between sugar…

Levy: Yeah

Harford: ...and body weight in an adults.

Levy: They didn't find good studies that allowed them to make the same conclusion as they were able to draw in children.

Harford: Yeah, but I mean they did have some randomized controlled trials...

Levy: Yeah

Harford: ...that seemed not to find an association.

Levy: So there are some studies that find that association. However, overall when you take the body of the evidence together, they concluded that there was an association between sugar intake and weight.

Harford: Although just to underline, they found that for children, not adults.

Levy’s willingness to repeatedly mischaracterize the evidence is extraordinary. Levy says, for example, that “there’s no reason to believe that the evidence would be any different for adults,” while in fact there is evidence, from the gold standard of research, randomised controlled trials.

This is shameful behaviour from a public body that has a revenue of £4.5 billion. Importantly, this exchange finally puts to shame the mirage that Public Health England are neutral arbiters of scientific fact and not political activists.

As is outlined earlier in the show, in an interview with Institute of Economic Affairs' Head of Lifestyle Economics and ASI Fellow Christoper Snowdon, the government’s own data shows sugar consumption is actually declining

Since 1992 added sugar consumption has fallen by about 28%, according to the Family Food Survey. Since 2000, adult consumption of sugar has fallen by about 10%, teenage sugar consumption has fallen by 18%, and since 1997 sugar consumption amongst younger children has fallen by 29%, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey.

It turns out that the only reason the headlines and messaging is so apocalyptic about sugar is because Public Health England halved the guidelines for acceptable level of sugar in one’s diet from 10 per cent of daily calorie intake down to 5 per cent in 2015 on the basis of weak evidence of the impact of sugar. This was on the basis of the aforementioned committee report that did not, in fact, find sugar is problematic for adults.

The pin’n’mix attitude to sugar stats by Public Health England does leave a rather sour taste in the mouth.