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The most dangerous 'nonprofit' harming your health

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

ilsi shill for multinational food industry

Story at-a-glance -

  • The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) was founded by a past vice president of Coca-Cola and, according to a study delving into recently released documentation, they have exerted influence worldwide to promote an industry-focused agenda and raise profits at the expense of public health
  • The researchers discovered top officials at ILSI sat on international panels to discuss the impact of sugary foods and chemicals, while using their position to push for more lenient regulations on products produced by their paid members, including Monsanto, Coca-Cola and DuPont
  • While the ILSI publicly denies involvement in public policy solutions or commercial interests, researchers found emails from founding president Alex Malaspina to the ILSI where he characterized the new sugar intake guidelines as a "disaster" for Coke
  • You may lower your risk for health challenges associated with eating ultraprocessed foods, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cancer, by eating a diet of real, organically grown whole foods

The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. Their mission, according to their website,1 is "to provide science that improves human health and well-being and safeguards the environment."

The organization was founded by Alex Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coca-Cola Co. and a regulatory affairs leader. While he founded ILSI in 1978, his ties with Coca-Cola were not severed. Coca-Cola awarded scientists the inaugural ILSI Malaspina International Scholars Travel Award in 2015 when Coca-Cola attended the 2015 ILSI annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona.2

Malaspina continued to work with Coca-Cola as a vice president in Atlanta, Georgia, long after founding ILSI.3 He also served4 as coordinator for new products at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc., and was president of the International Technical Caramel Association,5 a food industry trade group for users and producers of caramel colors.

While often referred to as Dr. Malaspina, he is not a medical doctor. Rather, he earned his doctorate in philosophy in 1955 and was conferred an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Salvador, Argentina.6 In 1994 he received the International Award from the Institute of Food Technologists. The goals of the ILSI are reportedly to bring:7

"… together scientists from government, academia and industry to uphold the scientific integrity and objectivity of nutrition and food safety science so that the resulting data and its applications are used ethically to improve food systems for the betterment of public health."

However, Malaspina has been an influential figure in the food industry, driving an epidemic of obesity8 and Type 2 diabetes9 through unique and strategic devices.10

Study exposes ILSI as shill for multinational food industry

A new study11 based on the organization's internal documents shows ILSI embedded itself in public health panels across Europe and the United Nations in an effort to promote its own industry-focused agenda to raise profits at the expense of public health worldwide.

Sarah Steele, Ph.D., from the department of politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge, led the research published in Globalization and Health. Information in the study is based on documents U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) obtained through state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.12

USRTK is a nonprofit investigative research group focused on investigating the food industry. Simon Barquera, Ph.D., a consultant for the World Health Organization,13 tweeted following the release of the study:14 "Today is #blackmonday for #ILSI an organization that has blocked public health nutrition efforts in Mexico & other countries."

The study found some of the top officials at ILSI were asked to sit on international panels discussing the negative impacts of tobacco, chemicals and sugary foods on individuals, where they used their position to push for more lenient regulations on products that have mountains of scientific evidence proving the impact on health. Lead author Sarah Steele told The Guardian:15

"Our findings add to the evidence that this nonprofit organisation has been used by its corporate backers for years to counter public health policies. ILSI should be regarded as an industry group — a private body — and regulated as such, not as a body acting for the greater good."

Steele and her colleagues read through more than 170,000 pages of emails from 2015 to 2018, finding ILSI received funds from food companies, including Nestle, General Mills, Monsanto and Coca-Cola.16

While the organization publicly denies any involvement in public policy solutions or commercial interests,17 the study uncovered emails from founder Malaspina to executives at Coca-Cola in which he characterized new sugar intake guidelines as a "disaster" for Coke. Emails were uncovered suggesting ILSI protects industry interests, including this one, sent to Suzanne Harris18 at ILSI:19

"Dear Friends, These guidelines are a real disaster! They could eventually affect us significantly in many ways; Soft drink taxations, modified school luncheon programs, a strong educational effort to educate children and adults to significanty limit their sugar intake, curtail advertising of sugary foods and beverages and eventually a great pressure from CDC and other Agencies to force industry to start deducing drastically the sugar we add to processed foods and beverages.

Also we have to expect that many nations will follow the US guidelines. We have to consider how to become ready to mount a strong defence. Warm regards. Alex"

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Nonprofit campaigns against public health policy

ILSI has affiliated chapters around the world20 and, in what may seem to be a juxtaposition of ideas, just completed participation in the 6th World Conference on Research Integrity in Hong Kong, China.21 According to the ILSI website:22

"Scientific integrity is fundamental to the mission and work of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). Specifically, ILSI North America and its partners throughout the scientific community have been leaders in defining principles, guidelines, and best practices for establishing and maintaining the Integrity of the scientific process when diverse stakeholders collaborate — now ILSI and it's 16 entities are building on this work."

According to documentation, ILSI partners include large food industry giants and agribusinesses intent on promoting the use of chemicals in agriculture and manufacturing. In fact, the study authors wrote the nonprofit is a lobby group promoting the interests of agrichemical industries counter to healthy public policies.23 Co-author Gary Ruskin, co-director of USRTK commented:24

"ILSI is Big Food's global stealth network to defeat scientists, regulators and others who point out the health risks of their products. Big Food wants you to believe that ILSI works for your health, but really it defends food industry profits."

Trustees on the board of ILSI have included representatives from Kellogg's, General Mills, Nestle and Pepsico,25 while Kristin DiNicolantonio, ILSI global communication director, told The Guardian26 they did so "in an individual capacity."

In 2019, some of ILSI's industry board members include representatives from Cargill, Pepsico, Coca-Cola, DuPont, General Mills, ConAgra, Abbott Nutrition and Campbell Soup Co. Even the USDA and CDC are included as "liaisons" to the board.27 In Europe, employees from General Mills, DuPont and Nestle sit on the board.28

The World Health Organization (WHO) was involved in 2016 after ILSI vice president Alan Boobis chaired the meeting to establish public policy on glyphosate. ILSI had taken more than $1 million in donations from Monsanto. WHO cut formal ties with ILSI in 2017.29

In an interesting turnabout, Mars Co. quit ILSI in 2018 and issued a statement explaining:30 "We do not want to be involved in advocacy led studies that so often, and mostly for the right reasons, have been criticized."

ILSI disavows founder while maintaining ties with Coca-Cola

Three days after the featured study was released, ILSI31 published a response in which they said Steele's conclusions about its lobbying policies are incorrect. They reiterated the organization explicitly prohibits members from advocating commercial interests and informs on actions by industry rather than developing policy.

In the statement,32 ILSI was explicit Malaspina was no longer an ILSI trustee, officer or representative of the organization of any kind and has no position within the organization. Any comments he may have made after 2001 should be seen as a retired private citizen.

They encouraged anyone reading the study to discount emails from Malaspina in which he was in contact with ILSI members. However, while this deep dive into documents from the self-proclaimed industry watchdog establishes its involvement in policy and decision making on a global scale, it is not the first time dirt has been found when ISLI has come under the microscope.33

Earlier this year, papers published in the BMJ34 and the Journal of Public Health Policy35 revealed the powerful influence the ILSI held over the Chinese government policymaking related to obesity.

The nonprofit organization is funded by corporate membership and supporters. In 2015 they thanked a three-page list of worldwide corporate supporters,36 including McDonald's, Monsanto, Pfizer and Red Bull. Currently, its website lists industry members37 such as the Coca-Cola Co., ConAgra, General Mills, PepsiCo and DuPont.

ILSI worked to discredit scientist

ILSI supports the use of glyphosate, sugar and numerous other chemicals in the manufacturing of food, and takes great offense to scientists who dare to identify flaws in their conclusions. Dr. Tim Noakes is one who reviewed a meta-analysis called the Naudé Review.38

The review was published in 2014, in which the researchers claimed data showed low-carb diets are no more effective for weight loss than low-fat diets. Noakes and public health researcher Zoe Harcombe reviewed the publication, finding multiple flaws and saying the conclusions were not robust.39

In South Africa, Noakes is nationally famous as exercise scientist and physician transforming sport by challenging some of the most commonly held beliefs. In the past, he has addressed hydration, motivation and fatigue, but apparently bit off too large a bite when he took on carbs, big soda and sugar.40

In February 2014 he tweeted41 that babies should be weaned onto low-carbohydrate diets. Suddenly the floodgates opened, and he was pressed to defend his statement, even though he no longer practiced medicine. A colleague, Russ Greene from CrossFit Inc., flew to South Africa to speak to Noakes and read 300 pages of trial documents.

Court trial to defend low-carb statement

Greene writes the trial42 "sets a frightening precedent," as anyone who dares to tweet something out of sync with the food industry's proxy organizations may face the full force and deep pockets of the junk food industry. Although one dietitian was the face of the opposition, she was not the leader, nor were dietitians leading the charge. In fact, the dietitian most verbal is also a consultant for Kellogg's.43

She erased most of the online documentation of her relationship with Kellogg's following the start of the trial.44 During the 2014 Nutrition Congress, ILSI contributed to the program and three officials from South Africa's Department of Health spoke at the ILSI session. Noakes was initially acquitted, but the Health Professionals Council of South Africa filed an appeal.

He was again acquitted in mid-2018, being found not guilty of giving nutritional advice online, during which he demonstrated a low-carb diet was scientifically correct and could cause no harm. While the trial may seem frivolous to some, Greene calls it45 "just good business" for Coca-Cola and its proxies.

A whole food diet plan reduces health risks

If you want your body to perform optimally, you need real food and all-natural nutrients, which is common sense advice for everyone. A real food diet is a foundational pillar for optimizing your health and your gut microbiome. Choosing organic, whole foods grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is key to avoiding toxins, and just as important as getting a wide variety of nutrients.

Organic fruits and vegetables may contain 19% to 69% more antioxidants than those conventionally-grown.46 Many of these have been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disorders.

On the other hand, eating ultraprocessed foods places you at greater risk for disease, including metabolic syndrome,47 cardiovascular disease48 and diabetes.49 Research has also linked ultraprocessed foods to cancer50 and premature death. Unfortunately, eating processed foods has become the norm worldwide.

For a discussion on the dangers of processed foods see my previous article, "Processed foods lead to cancer and early death." Making changes to your nutrition may improve your health and help you more easily control your weight. For tips on eating more real food, see my previous article, "For optimal health and weight, eat real food."