Posted: 04 January 2018

This is an English translation of the original article entitled, “Na Malásia, país mais obeso da Ásia, os nutricionistas recebem verba das empresas alimentícias”, which may be found at:

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - In the last three decades, in addition to being prosperous, this nation has also become the fattest country in Asia, where nearly half the adult population has a problem of being overweight or obese. For this reason, several years ago, Dr. Tee E Siong, one of the leading national nutrition experts, decided to take action by organizing a thorough study of local diets, habits, and lifestyles.

The research, led by scientists at the Malaysian Nutrition Society, chaired by Tee, produced several articles for scholarly publications, but colleagues were not the only ones to review the material: it was also analyzed by Nestlé, the world's largest food company, which financed the contract.

Among the texts, there was one that concluded that children who drank malted drinks for breakfast - a category dominated here by Milo, a powdered baby by Nestlé - were more likely to be physically active and spend less time in front of the computer or the TV.

The project is a typical example of a practice that began in the West and has established, along with rising levels of obesity, in developing countries: comprehensive financial partnerships between food conglomerates and nutritionists, politicians and academics.

In order to expand their markets, these multinationals are investing heavily in developing countries, such as India and Cameroon, to gain the support of local scientists. The industry funds research projects, pays consulting to scholars, and sponsors the largest nutrition conferences when ultra processed sales have skyrocketed: in Malaysia alone, they have increased more than 105 percent in the last five years, according to market research firm Euromonitor.

In addition to Nestlé, Tee's work was funded by Kellogg's, PepsiCo and Tate & Lyle, one of the largest manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup, among other products. He justifies saying that scientists need the cooperation and financial support of companies, which are able to provide the much-needed resources.

And he noted that traditional national cuisine with its curries and other sugar-laden street foods are the main cause of obesity, saying that working with street vendors and backyard companies to make their items healthier is very difficult. large companies, whose process is simpler and more productive.

Tee states that it uses its position to pressure the government to take important regulatory action, including the 2003 law, which required the food industry to include nutritional information - the levels of fat, sugars and protein - in the packaging.

"We were one of the first countries in Asia to take this step," he explains.

For Nestlé, it is important to collaborate with nutrition improvement initiatives around the world.

"Nestlé believes that public health issues can only be resolved by a large group of companies, with the power to play a catalytic role," the corporation said in an e-mail.

The company reads the articles before they are published as part of the agreement with the Tee's Nutrition Society, and states that it reviews the material "to ensure the methodology is scientifically correct."

Further in his statement: "We approach research transparently and apply strict standards to ensure the integrity of the project until publication of the study."

We recently took Tee for a walk to the fairy-lit aisles of the supermarket in a suburb of the Malaysian capital. The shelves were packed with items now found anywhere in the world: instant noodles, ready-made tomato sauce, soda and a plethora of sweetened cereals, including Nestlé's Stars, whose content has 28 percent sugar and a bright red circle , at the bottom of the packaging, which reads: "Considered the healthiest option by the Malaysian Ministry of Health."

"We have to stop blaming the multinationals, the real problem is not the kind of food the people consume, but the quantities, and the lifestyle it takes," Tee says.

"The Malaysians are always eating, and they do not exercise, I'm not talking about going to the gym, but going for a walk, it's easy and cheap, you have to get up and move!"

Shaping collective thinking

Two senior members of the Ministry of Health recently convened to discuss the issue of obesity and the role of Tee in the national response to the problem.

"I admire him very much. There is no one to replace him as president of the Nutrition Society," exclaims Zalma Abdul Razak, who heads the ministry's nutrition section.

According to its annual reports, the institution received thousands of dollars from the food industry, including at least $ 188,000 from Nestlé and Cereal Partners Worldwide, a joint venture between Switzerland and General Mills, for the study of breakfast. In addition, it had another $ 44,000 directly from Nestlé for other projects and partnerships; about $ 11,000 from the dairy industry; $ 10,000 from Ajinomoto, which makes aspartame; plus $ 40,000 from Philips Avent baby food company for projects related to maternal and child nutrition.

PepsiCo and Tate & Lyle funded the company's annual conference, in addition to Tee's Southeast Asia Public Health Network, but both declined to disclose the amounts.

The ethos of corporate partnership is also present in numerous health initiatives in Malaysia: a committee of the Ministry of Health has teamed up with the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, which includes representatives from major food companies, to develop a labeling system for the public that informs the which processed foods are "healthier" than others in the same category.

Among the options we obtained this information are children's sweetened cereals and Gatorade Quiet Storm, which contains 16 grams of sugar per serving and received a low score for its nutritional content of Food Educate, an appraisal of various foods and received several awards.

For S. Subramaniam, Malaysian health minister, it is not the government's job to watch over food multinationals.

"It's more a matter of cooperation," he says.

But some nutritionists say the country's dietary guidelines, which Tee has helped define, are not as strict about sugar as they should be. The guide encourages consumption of grains and cereals and limits fat to between 20 and 30 percent of daily calories - a recommendation that was taken from the American manual in 2015 after it was proven that the low-fat diet not only does not reduce how obesity can contribute to the problem.

"Corporate funding of nutritional science in Malaysia weakens the fight against the consumption of sugar and processed foods," says Rohana Abdul Jalil, Harvard-trained specialist working in Kelantan, whose obesity rate is as high as that of metropolises, despite being a rural region.

"There has never been an explicit and aggressive campaign against sugar."

She works in Kota Bharu, the state capital, where there are stalls and strollers at the school's doorstep selling huge soda cups, various types of chocolates, and corn and rice chips in shrimp and cheese flavors.

Rohana teaches food awareness and is still surprised to realize that many participants are not aware of the dangers of over-consumption of sugar.

The nutritionist, who does not receive money from big companies, promotes a basic diet, with lots of native brown rice and other vegetables from the earth.

And criticizes the documents resulting from the study on breakfast made by the nutrition society. In addition to the report linking malted drinks to greater physical fitness and less time in front of the TV / computer screen, Tee and her colleagues published an analysis of morning cereals that are not part of the Malaysian diet, classifying them as "important source of nutrients," although it has also revealed a high sugar content.

In turn, Tee says the risks of obesity in the country would be greater without the help of multinationals and that it could not accomplish its goals without their help.

"There are those who say that we should not accept money for our projects, our studies, our researches, I know that very well, I have two choices: to do nothing or work with the conglomerates," he concludes.

By Thomas Fuller, Anah