‘Former fattie’ Rory Robertson ups the ante on Sydney Uni’s connections with Big Sugar, Big Pharma

by James F Sice | Jul 18, 2023 | Business, Latest Posts

Economist Rory Robertson has been waging war on Big Sugar and Sydney University for more than a decade. Rory’s campaign has taken a sudden turn over recent days. James F Sice reports. 

Warning to Big Sugar and friends: Rory Robertson has stopped being polite. That’s not to say you won’t be getting his long emails, full of jibes, questions and copied en masse to Sydney University academics, the ABC, most MPs, leading scientists and medical journals and, well, anyone else who needs to know about the big “diabetes fraud”.

It is simply that Robertson, ex-Reserve Bank and Macquarie Bank economist and self-described “former fattie”, is getting up close and personal. After more than a decade of campaigning, he’s tired of being ignored.

It came to a head last week at the Museum of Sydney’s Warrane Theatre in front of 600 people. The event was a Diabetes Australia roadshow. ABC medical reporter Norman Swan was MC. Rory stood up and asked a conflict of interest question about the doyenne of sugar science in Australia and she and her associate left the room. Questions have been put by MWM to Sydney Uni but they have not been fully answered.

War on sugar  

Rory Robertson’s war against Big Sugar began in 2011 after reading an article in The Australian which discussed ‘The Australian Paradox’ in which authors Professor Jennie Brand-Miller and Dr Alan Barclay claimed that sugar intake in Australia had declined from 1980 to 2010 while simultaneously obesity and diabetes had tripled.

In other words, sugar wasn’t the villain in our obesity epidemic, or, as Jennie Brand-Miller and Barclay put it, “the concern is that potentially more important determinants of obesity are being overlooked by the current emphasis on sugars and soft drinks.”

Robertson has two main beefs: firstly, The Australian Paradox, which first appeared in Nutrients academic journal, is based on misrepresented data and secondly, that Brand-Miller, a professor at Sydney University, is allegedly married to Dr John Miller, the medical director of Novo Nordisk Pharmaceuticals (Australasia), the 23rd most valuable company in the world and a leading maker of insulin used to treat type 2 diabetes. In the year ending March, the company made $US22.24bn, much of it selling drugs to treat obesity and diabetes.

Robertson sees a clear conflict of interest. He first pursued Brand-Miller and Nutrients, whose then editor, Peter Howe, took the unusual step of noting the journal had become “the target of an unprecedented internet campaign by an individual”. That was in April 2012, since then Robertson’s net has widened. Considerably.

The Great Diabetes debate gets hot

Last Wednesday, Robertson couldn’t believe his luck when the event’s MC – ABC health guru Norman Swan – drew his attention to Brand-Miller in the audience at a Diabetes Australia ‘Great Debate’. Seizing the moment, he directly asked her about the potential conflict in her research given her alleged relationship with Miller.

Without saying a word, Brand-Miller and her companion left the event – “exit stage left”, as Robertson puts it. After a heated exchange with some members of the panel, Robertson was asked to leave. He did so.

As he tells MWM: “There’s no quiet, polite way to disrupt this nonsense if hundreds of letters to thousands of authority figures gets me nowhere. It wasn’t my finest hour, but I’ve tried diligently to get the science community to address what I think is a profoundly important deception on pharmaceutical conflicts of interest by the most globally influential nutrition scientist in Australia’s history.”

Robertson wants an independent inquiry into Brand-Miller’s link to Novo Nordisk and a host of other Sydney University academics and vice chancellors whom he alleges to be party to inappropriate diabetes research. He has bombarded successive vice-chancellors and Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson at the university about the influence of Big Sugar and Big Pharma on its research agenda and in the wake of last Wednesday’s drama, the senior management and board of the ABC in relation to Swan’s role as a host of the event.

At the heart of Robertson’s claims is his takedown of Brand-Miller’s Australian Paradox and her alleged relationship with Novo Nordisk’s John Miller. This latter point has proven difficult to fully pin down. Both Brand-Miller and Sydney University declined to confirm it. Other evidence however, such as happy internet snaps of the pair together, suggest they are a couple or at least have been. Robertson says he is “99.99 %” sure they were or are married”.

Michael West Media is not suggesting that Brand-Miller has acted unethically and allowed any personal relationship affect her professional work. But there is a live debate about the treatment of type 2 diabetes, as typified by the less confrontational work of star TV doctor, Michael Mosley, who, like Robertson, argues that T2 diabetes can be reversed by diet rather than drugs.

Which brings us to Robertson’s critique of Brand-Miller’s work.

The Australian Paradox ‘solved’

Robertson claims that through a sugar-free and carbohydrate-restrictive diet, he lost 10 kilograms in eight months. For this, he has backing. In his address to the National Press Club in 2020, then Australian of the Year James Muecke, an ophthalmologist, said, “The simple fact is, there are now three proven methods for putting type 2 diabetes into remission,” 

“There are now over 100 controlled clinical trials to support the fact that a very low calorie diet or a low carbohydrate diet works to either prevent type 2 diabetes or put it into remission”

With the number of people with diabetes expected to reach 1.3 billion by 2050 and 96 per cent of cases being type 2 diabetes in 2021, how could you say sugar is not the cause?

Do the graphs tell the story?

Robertson argues that Brand-Miller’s Australian Paradox contains inaccurate interpretations. For instance, a graph used in the study to illustrate a fall in the consumption of sugary drinks by what Brand-Miller and Barclay claimed was a 10 per cent decline actually shows a rise of nearly 30 per cent (from 35L per person per year to to 45L per person per year).

Graph from the Australian Paradox showing an increase in sales of sugary drinks.

Other graphs and surveys (as shown below) also used in the study to show adult sugar consumption also trended up rather than down.

Source: Australian Paradox

Source: Australian Paradox

One of the figures (green line labeled ‘refined sucrose’) cited by Brand-Miller supposedly shows a dropping intake of added sugars from 1980 to 2010 attributed to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. However, the FOA gets its data from the ABS, who discontinued the data series after 1998-99 due to it being unreliable. Despite this, the study continues to argue that there was a “consistent and substantial” decline in sugar consumption from 1980 to 2010.

“I’m an economist,” says Robertson. “Most of what I do is look at charts and data…They ignore firm scientific data.”

“No matter how bad the paper is, the university will protect it…her entire career, she’s pushed this argument that excessive sugar and carbohydrate intake isn’t the problem.”

What Sydney University says – or doesn’t

The University of Sydney did not address the specific allegations about Brand-Miller and her research. Instead, a University of Sydney spokesperson told Michael West Media that: 

“For over a decade Mr Robertson has made a series of public claims about a number of our researchers and their scientific work – any matters have been appropriately, repeatedly and thoroughly examined internally and externally with no evidence of any misconduct found.

“Professor Jennie Brand-Miller is recognised and regarded around the world for her substantial work on carbohydrates and the glycemic index of foods, with over 300 scientific publications and awards for her contributions to science and technology in Australia.”

The spokesperson also noted that: “Our staff are required to declare any relevant interests including external income, and there are significant consequences if someone does not do so. ”

When Mark Scott ran the ABC instead of Sydney Uni…

Robertson’s claims have been examined by other media organisations, most notably the ABC, under then managing director/editor-in-chief Mark Scott.

After reporting on Robertson’s campaign against The Australian Paradox on Lateline in 2016, ABC conducted an internal investigation into the validity of its report after it received a complaint stating it “unduly favoured the perspectives of critics of the Australian Paradox”.

Scott is now the vice-chancellor of University of Sydney. Back in 2016, his ABC vigorously defended Robertsons’ key claims regarding Brand-Miller’s Australian Paradox.

“Lateline has explained that it was relevant to focus exclusively on the 2011 paper because Professor Brand-Miller continues to promote it at conferences, it has been cited in the federal parliament in support of the sugar industry and appears on the Australian Beverages Council website as a justification for Sugar laden products the council represents an advocates.” 

“We are satisfied that Rory Robertson represented a principal (sic) relevant perspective on the issues examined in the broadcast. We note that he’s a senior Economist, with one of the country’s leading banks, who is a highly credible, respected data analytics expert. It is our view that his extensive research on this issue and critical assessment of the Australian Paradox, particularly the data relied upon by its authors, is based on and substantiated by demonstrable evidence and is compelling.”

The profit paradox

Dr Joe Collins, lecturer in political economy at the University of Sydney, isn’t surprised that such alleged conflicts of interest may exist. “When the imperatives of profit are combined with the compulsions of competition within markets… if we accept that this is an appropriate way to coordinate nutrition, then I don’t think we should be surprised when these systematic problems appear.”

“When McDonald’s got the heart tick… it’s intuitively absurd, but it’s legitimate because they sell apple slices with their nuggets.” 

Rest assured, Robertson won’t be going away

Rory Robertson isn’t going to give up. “It’s gotten worse: the number of people that have type 2 diabetes is rapidly rising; there’s unnecessary misery and early death; there’s ongoing amputations and people going blind; and they just say ‘shut up Rory, nothing to see here’ … I won’t  just go away.”

“It’s the biggest scandal in Australian medical history. People are being force-fed insulin who don’t need it and just need a low carb diet.” 

Michael West Media put questions directly to Brand-Miller. But received another reply from the media department of Sydney University advising it to put any further questions through it.

Academic freedom apparently doesn’t extend to having academics free to answer questions for themselves.

Kellogg’s “junk science” and Australia’s health policy

James is studying a bachelor of Communication (Journalism) at the University of Technology Sydney. He is a producer at 2SER radio and contributor at UTS’s Central News.

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