The food industry braced itself for flak following the World Cancer Research Fund’s (WCRF) report linking diet to cancer. However, did the scale of the report mean its message for consumers was lost? Ben Cooper reports. 


The publication of a major report into dietary and lifestyle influences on cancer by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) attracted major media attention last week. But, for once, it was not the food industry that bore the brunt of criticism but the scientists who produced the report.
 
Based on a six-year study of a vast range of research into the epidemiology of cancer, the report made ten recommendations on lifestyle and dietary habits that could help reduce the risk of cancers. These included reducing consumption of many of the danger foods that have long been associated with poor health, such as red meat and foods high in salt, while also encouraging people once more to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables.
 
However, while from a scientific point of view the report appeared to be one of the most comprehensive of its kind ever published, from a public-health standpoint some believe that the WCRF actually missed the mark.


Among those to have expressed reservations regarding the wisdom of publishing such an exhaustive – and perhaps more pointedly exhausting – catalogue of “danger” foods to be avoided, was Dr Andrew Wadge, chief scientist at the UK food watchdog the Food Standards Agency (FSA ).
 
Wadge acknowledges that the report’s findings were based on good science. However, he believes there is a strong possibility that publishing so many recommendations about so many foods in one go runs the risk of simply overwhelming the public and therefore failing to produce the desired change in behaviour.
 
“There were ten recommendations in the report covering everything from alcohol to meat and it was very diverse and complex, and probably a little too much to digest for most people,” Wadge tells just-food. Wadge says there was good advice in the report but “because the message has not been communicated well there is a danger that people will throw up their hands and ignore it”.
 
The implication therefore is that the WCRF communication strategy was misguided. “When we’re issuing a message we like to start from the science and then we think about how that message will be best put across,” Wadge says. “People need clear straightforward information.”
 
A significant part of the FSA’s activities are involved in public education about food and diet, and its emphasis has consistently been on the idea of promoting the merits of a balanced diet rather than focusing on individual unhealthy foods.
 
“I do think that the key is to not focus too much on one specific food but to really look at the diet,” Wadge says. “My concern is not whether people are eating the occasional bacon butty but whether people are eating a balanced diet and we know in this country that a lot of people aren’t. It’s not a question of cutting out the occasional bacon butty but moving from two to five portions of fresh fruit or vegetables a day.”
 
Indeed, the FSA’s “Eatwell” plate not only exemplifies the agency’s emphasis on a balanced diet but is also an example of the simple, clear and consumer-friendly approach to public health education that Wadge is alluding to.
 
Interestingly, this emphasis on a balanced diet means the FSA’s stance to the WCRF report has much in common with the food industry’s own response.
 
Julian Hunt of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said he believes the report confirms the idea that the best way to stay healthy is to have a balanced diet. “Most people know that the secret to a healthy long life is keeping everything in balance, including diet and exercise,” Hunt says. “It’s all about having that balance and everything in moderation.”
 
Hunt also said he believed the public could become desensitised by a “constant barrage” of sometimes conflicting public health messages.
 
A more extreme view on this issue was taken by a US trade body, the American Meat Institute (AMI). “The WCRF’s conclusions are extreme, unfounded and out of step with dietary guidelines,” AMI foundation vice president of scientific affairs Randy Huffman said. “Headlines associated with this report may give consumers another case of nutrition whiplash. No health groups should be dispensing clear-cut recommendations on specific foods when studies continue to contradict each other time after time.”
 
But while there was clearly more common ground between the Food and Drink Federation’s views and those of the FSA, Wadge was keen to point out that the specific recommendations in the report were important, even if in public education terms they had been lost somewhat because of the overall scope of the report.
 
“A key message in this that we mustn’t lose sight of is that there is an association between red meat and cancer, and it is sensible advice to have a moderate intake of meat and choose lean cuts,” he said. “We would want people to continue to follow that advice – and continue to do that.”


The fact that the media agenda was to a large extent focused on the overwhelming nature of the WCRF’s message – a headline in UK newspaper Daily Mail for example read “So what IS safe to eat?” – meant that the food industry had a quieter week than might have been expected in the lead-up to the publication of a major report on the causes of cancer.


However, while some may feel the industry had to a degree been let off the hook, Wadge did not believe this was the case, and said the industry had a clear role to play in helping to improve diets.
 
But Wadge added that he was pleased the food industry’s response had, like the FSA’s, stressed the importance of a balanced diet. “If they’re giving the same message as us that’s very good,” he said, adding that he hoped such common ground could be the basis for more multi-stakeholder cooperation in improving diet.