Examination of Witnesses (Questions 276-279)
17 JULY 2003
Q276 Chairman: Colleagues, may I
welcome you to this session of the Committee and apologise for
the slight delay in starting which is due to the fact that unfortunately
a number of our witnesses are having somewhat disastrous experiences
on our public transport system. We understand that Professor Blundell
will not make it: he is stuck on a train between Leeds and London
(which is worrying for us who are going the other way very shortly!)
We understand some of the other witnesses are hopefully on their
way, but we have suggested we make a start. Professor Prentice,
obviously we are most grateful to you for flying the flag almost
single-handedly until the others arrive.
Professor Prentice: I am Andrew
Prentice, I am Head of the Medical Research Council's International
Nutrition Group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
I also direct the MRC's Nutrition Programme in the Gambia in West
Dr Lobstein: I am Tim Lobstein.
I am Director of the Food Commission, which is a voluntary non-governmental
organisation working in the UK which is also responsible for a
group called the Parents' Jury which has about 1,200 parents who
vote on various food products.
Q277 Chairman: Thank you for your
contribution to this inquiry and for your written submissions
which we are most grateful for. Could I begin by asking you, Professor
Prentice, to say a bit about your own work. We have a copy of
the paper you and Dr Jebb produced in 1995 which I think has been
the basis for some quite significant debate in this whole area.
I wonder if you could, by way of introduction, summarise the brief
key points central to this "gluttony/sloth" debate which
I know has caused some controversy. I think you feel that perhaps
you have been misinterpreted.
Professor Prentice: Indeed and
hopefully I will have an opportunity to rectify that. But to step
one step backwards first might be useful, which is to say that
we have been supported by the MRC for many years to look at the
fundamental processes of how the human body regulates body weight
or why that goes wrong. We tried to look at that in a molecules-to-man
direction to try to integrate the whole picture. A quick summary
of many years of work at the physiological, metabolic end, is
that we have come to the conclusion that the answers to this problem
do not lie there, they lie within the environment. That has clearly
come out of all the evidence you have had already, so I will not
labour that point. With the BMJ paper in 1995 we tried to take
some of that knowledge and integrate it upwards to what we know
about the statistics of how the environment has changed around
us and look at that as objectively as possible. It needs to be
said that a lot of the evidence is very poor, so one is working
within a pretty poor framework. We tried to look at that as objectively
Q278 Chairman: You wrote this paper
in 1995. Is the evidence as poor now as it was then or have some
fundamental changes taken place?
Professor Prentice: It is a great
deal better now, particularly in relation to physical activity
and inactivity. Twenty years ago, apart from the small amount
of work done in terms of heart disease by Paffenberg, there was
very little interest in physical activity. We now have that as
the enormous driver of a great deal of research into the health
effects of physical inactivity. That is a big change and I hope
we can take a little bit of credit for driving that. The evidence
at the epidemiological level is still pretty poor, but I think
it is very important that we do not allow that to inhibit us from
action because many of the conclusions are blindingly obvious,
many of the causes of the problem are blindingly obvious. I do
not think we should let certain people with perhaps vested interest
be allowed to play the card that we do not yet have the evidence,
we are not sure about certain things. I think it is important
that, yes, we need better data but we have plenty of data to be
getting on with at the moment.
Q279 Chairman: Are you able to be
more specific about people playing the card? Who are you referring
to in particular?
Professor Prentice: Certain rogue
elements of the food industry. I think it is important right at
the outset from my point of view to say that many aspects of the
food industry are doing a fabulous job. They are providing us
with a better diet and a greater choice, a wonderful variety,
of healthy and low fat foods than ever before. We have a better
diet than ever before. Nonetheless, there are still elements there
who are fighting a rearguard action against change in the way
in which we, in I think 99% of the population, would agree there
needs to be change.