With horror-filled delight, I noticed that the Swedish National Food Agency has started working on a new edition of the Nordic nutritional recommendations, usually abbreviated as NNR.
Delight? Well, there is undoubtedly an improvement potential, although NNR took a few steps forward in the last edition published in 2012, where it was gratifying to have a little more focus on the quality of the raw materials we eat, rather than on the individual items included.
Horror? Yes, these are the written in stone scripts that, for a decade, until the 2030’s, will be invoked as the highest scientific evidence and knocked on the head of all alleged renegades.
Since I myself have sometimes been one of those who have been knocked on, it feels important that this time the job is done well. But the Nordic nutrition recommendations unfortunately have a history that is tinted, seeing as that they operate in close cooperation between governmental authorities and the food industry.
Representatives of the industry usually claim emphatically that NNR 2012 is based on more than a hundred researchers’ work and is perhaps the most solid research review that is done in the field of nutrition. And while that may be true, it is a truth with modification. NNR is also largely a negotiating product where the end result has been throttled back and forth with various stakeholders. Over the years I have talked to researchers who have written sections that have been laid out for them on unclear grounds in that process.
When the work on the current Nordic nutrition recommendations started in 2008, I was at an information meeting at the National Food Agency in Uppsala. It was mentioned in passing that an EU project would form the basis for the work. There was simply no money in the Nordic office to finance a complete review of the research on diet and nutrition. The cooperation with the EU was to take place through an organization called Eurreca, we were told. Of course, I became curious and began to investigate the matter more closely.
It turned out that the European Commission has given 13.2 million Euro to Eurreca to do its review, a huge sum in this context. What was not mentioned at the meeting, and is not affected by NNR 2012, was that Eurreca was started on the initiative of the International Life Sciences Institute, abbreviated ILSI.
ILSI is a lobbying organization founded in 1978 by Coca-Cola, General Foods, Heinz, Kraft and Procter & Gamble, which initially had the task of defending the tobacco industry. Today, ILSI is backed by hundreds of the world’s largest food, chemical and pharmaceutical companies.
Researchers from around 15 universities, as well as private consultants, several of whom had previous ties to ILSI, were associated with Eurreca. The Swedish Food Agency and the French Public Health Institute were the only national authorities represented among the members of the steering group.
Coordinator of Eurreca was a former research manager at ILSI Europe and the information was handled by a public relations consultancy who hired ILSI Europe as a subcontractor for the operation of Eurreca’s website.
It is really no exaggeration to say that the work on the Nordic nutritional recommendations was already in the laps of the industry.
You should also know that ILSI is a controversial organization that, just a few years earlier, had opposed the recommendation to reduce consumption of sugar to less than 10 percent of caloric intake. They did not believe that there was evidence to prove those measures would counteract obesity, which would have been a threat of course to the soft drink industry.
In NNR 2012, there is certainly the recommendation to eat less than 10 percent sugar, but Sweden and the other Nordic countries did not comply with the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) recommendation to a maximum of 5 percent, the level at which cavities increases significantly.
If new NNR is to be given credibility, it is important to clear out this type of bond and work with a great deal of openness.
Another of several challenges for the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations is the very starting point: finding reference values for large groups of consumers.
Another note worth point out is the ever increasing amounts of research that are revealing the vast differences that exist between different individuals, related at the very least to the fact that we carry radically different sets of gut bacteria.
What one can easily consume themselves may simply be inappropriate for another. One size no longer fits everyone, not even if it is called Mediterranean food which in almost all studies has a positive impact on most. Even there, in every study, there is a fairly large minority that for some reason the Mediterranean diet does not sit well with.
Add to that the fact that research is currently developing very quickly. When the experts made their literature search for the current recommendations in 2010, there was hardly any research on our gut flora, which today is the most expansive field globally in the biological sciences.
More than 90 percent of all studies in the field have been published as of late. That speed will hardly slow down, and without continuous updating, publications like NNR, which is renewed at its height every eight years, risk being outdated and useless.
An ongoing update of appropriate doses of vitamins and minerals may be in order, as well as a call to action for eating more greens and avoiding processed junk foods with lots of sugar and refined fats. The question at hand here is if standard recommendations of this type really play any active part in nutrition for the mass general public?
Henrik Ennart, together with Niklas Ekstedt, is the author of the recently published book Happy Food 2.0 (currently only available in Swedish, however your can find their first book Happy Food in English here.). The views in the chronicle are the writer’s own.