Are you getting enough sugar?

Don’t tell the neighbours, but I don’t often venture northwards enough on the telly’s dial to make contact with SBS. However, last week some alert promo watchers warned me to tune in to Food Investigators on Wednesday night.

Food Investigators is in English and doesn’t contain any nudity (as far as I can tell from limited exposure) so I’m not quite sure why Aunty’s little sister funds it. Maybe it’s got something to do with SBS’s need to attract advertisers in these days of Master Runway Decorator Chefs?

Last week’s edition was a revelation. In hard hitting style, the show’s host(ess), ‘hospital doctor, actor and healthy eating enthusiast’ Dr Renee Lim was on the trail of some big news. She revealed that ‘recent studies’ show that we are all eating 20 percent less sugar than 30 years ago. This information seemed to come from Dr Alan Barclay who also pointed out that over the same period ‘rates of overweight and obesity have gone through the roof’.

That was enough for Renee, who pronounced that ‘too much sugar isn’t the major cause of obesity’. Having dropped her bombshell (or Dr Barclay’s bombshell, it wasn’t clear which), Dr Lim crossed to the show’s built in dietician, Hanan Saleh to find out how much sugar we all should be eating.

Hanan recommends ’15-20% of your daily energy intake should come from sugar’. She helpfully explains that translates to up to 32 teaspoons for men and up to 25 teaspoons for woman and children. Concerned that you, gentle viewer, will be freaking out about having to add another 30 teaspoons of sugar to your coffee (just to get your recommended dose), she helpfully explains that 80% of that has already been added to your food by your friendly neighbourhood food and beverage conglomerate (or words to that effect).

I stayed glued to the Box in the hope that Renee or Alan might pop back in and reference the world changing research they had unceremoniously dropped on the floor without so much as a ‘how’s your father?’. No such luck though. I had to know more, but hours spent hunched over a hot browser left me none the wiser, so I emailed Dr Barclay.

The good doctor got straight back to me with a clarification that wasn’t in the show. His research has not yet been published. He will reveal all at the Australian Diabetes Society’s annual conference in Adelaide next month. He was stumm as to any further detail, so I guess I’ll just have to sit and wait.

In all my searching, I couldn’t find Dr Barclay’s research (or even anything that it might be based on), but I did find out quite a bit about him. SBS described him with the brief under-title, ‘Diabetes Australia’, but there is so much more they could (and should) have told us.

Alan Barclay has a PhD to top up his undergraduate studies in nutrition and dietetics. He is the human nutrition manager at Diabetes Australia-NSW. He’s also a media spokesperson for the Dieticians Association of Australia (having recently completed a media training course at NIDA). So I’m guessing he knows a thing or two about human nutrition (and how to talk to journalists).

So far so good, but then things get a little murky. Alan is also the CSO (I think that means Chief Science Officer) and occasionally Acting-CEO at Glycemic Index Ltd (GIL). GIL is a ‘not-for-profit company formed by the University of Sydney, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and Diabetes Australia’. It exists to dispense GI Symbols to worthy recipients.

The GI Symbol is the poor relation of the heart foundation’s tick. Prospective supplicants submit their fare for testing, pay the ‘testing fee’ and, if adjudged worthy, receive a little blue G that they can display on their labels.

Just like the tick, the GI program is designed to ‘help consumers choose healthy foods’. And just like the tick, consumer research shows it actually works. But there is one place you’ll find a GI Symbol that not even the heart foundation has (so far) dared to go. CSR have managed to get one slapped proudly on the front of a packet of sugar. Yep, sugar. The very same stuff that Alan helped SBS point out is no longer a threat to our waistlines.

This is, of course, not news to Alan. He was right there at the launch of the new GI Approved Sugar in March and his boss, board member, Professor Jennie Brand-Miller was widely quoted in support of CSR’s announcement.

At this stage, it seems that only SBS have been privy to Dr Barclay’s paradigm smashing research on sugar, so I can’t comment on that. I do however think it would have been a nice touch to mention his association with a sugar producer. This is particularly important given the program did much more than break the news on the ‘research’ front. It suggested that people should be getting up to a fifth of their calories from sugar (which is more than even Nestle recommends).

How long would a doctor keep his practising certificate if he prescribed a medication in which he had an undisclosed financial interest? Exactly how many minutes would a lawyer spend in the wild, if he counselled clients to invest in a scheme from which he took an undisclosed fee?

Human nutrition is no longer a soft science or an almost-profession. People base life decisions on the information dispensed by shows like The Food Investigators. The standard ‘this advice does not take account of your circumstances’ disclaimer doesn’t cut it when the advice affects everyone. The science says there isn’t a category of person who won’t be harmed by sugar consumption. Telling people to eat it in quantity, is like recommending daily arsenic supplements.

Also published in Crikey

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Claire says:

    All good points. Their segment was sadly misleading and an over simplification, who do they think their target audience are? I look forward to the segments tonight about bread and food colouring, but I’ll keep my expectations low.

  • Lisa says:

    Hi David, thank you for yet another eye-opening post. In my meandering search for metabolic cures, I’ve come across Brand-Miller’s work here and there, as I’m sure lots fellow seekers have, in her own GI-based work, and as a sometime co-author of papers with the paleo diet researcher Loren Cordain. I’m just flaggergasted she’s helping flog sugar. Do you have any idea how they get this stuff to absorb more slowly? I read through the blurb on the Horizen Science site you linked to, but there’s no indication of what the trick actually is. Could they somehow have come up with a refining technique that boosts the fructose content?

  • Lisa says:

    Oops, sorry for the typos. Make that “flabbergasted”. And can I add for good measure, gobsmacked, astonished, dismayed, discombobulated even …

    Not an over-reaction, I feel, as I re-read the weasel words of the good professor herself from the Logicane press release:

    “It’s not just an empty source of calories, what you call ‘hollow calories’,” Professor Brand-Miller said.

    “This is a step in the right direction … because the overall glycemic load of the Australian diet is too high and we need to make changes.”

    Who is she kidding??

  • Lisa,

    Re how they get the lower GI – I’ve taken a look at the patent behind it and it seems just to be ordinary brown sugar (which is lower GI anyway) but they spray it with a molasses with a larger particle size to get the (slightly) lower GI (white sugar’s GI is only 55-60 anyway). Its still just sugar.


  • Lisa says:

    Thanks David! Even for firm believers in the efficacy of the GI index, helping flog sugar with a marginally lower GI is surely beyond the pale. In fact it looks a lot like a confidence trick. And as you emphasise in the post, people will make real-life decisions based on this “expert advice” that could induce or exacerbate real-life medical suffering.

  • Lucy says:


    I think you have missed the mark on what the program actually advised. They definitely promoted sugar only in moderation and that a small amount can actually be beneficial and helpful to fuel the body. They shun the consumption of sugary beverages and foods containing high amounts of sugar (Including your pet hate – juice).

    In a previous week they talked about the consumption of too much salt and the health implications of excessive amounts salt in food. Something you seem to ignore in your writings. This is a food that has been proven time and again to be dangerous in large amounts – just lik sugar. Particularly not good when you appear on current affairs prgrams eating (promoting) bags of chips – a highly processed, fatty, salty food.

    You actually discredit the researcher it seems without knowing too much about him.

    I have watched every aired episode of Food Investigators and while it is not a show that provides all the answers to everyone, it is designed to encourage veiwers to eat better, exercise, and generally live healthier lives.
    The good doctors and dieticitans (All fully qualified) that present the show clearly have the best of intentions when it comes to educating Australians. It is not helpful to discredit the show and the presenters as it is full of fantastic advise for people trying to lose weight and be healthier. No one – not even you has all the answers – or we really all would be healthy and thin (and you would be a very rich man).

    May I also suggest that you have an interest in discrediting the research, the presenters, and the program? You, who are trying to sell your book? Many people have your book, what would happen if all your research were proven incorrect? I’m not saying that that is your motivation, but perhaps it is not the motivation of the researcher either.

    To me – whatever makes people healthier is what is right. People are really struggling out there to lose weight and be healthy and they don’t need arguements from ‘experts’, they need help. I believe you have valid points in your research and I respect your searches for answers however I also respectfully disagree with parts of it (particularly your theories on milk)

    Everyone must find out what’s best for them and basically find out how to expend more energy than they consume, eat less food that rarely appears in nature, and eat better and more whole foods.

  • Lucy,

    Salt: Actually the research on salt is very thin on the ground. If there was that little actual data on sugar, you could rightly call me a charlatan. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying salt is health food, but data on how much is safe and what the ill effects actually are (and the causal links) is open to dispute.

    Sugar: The show actually recommended people SHOULD eat up to 20% of their calories from sugar. Even the WHO (as far back as 2003) was recommending a MAXIMUM of 10% and preferably much less. SBS’s tame nutritionist doesn’t have to agree with me but surely they’d have some regard to the WHO?

    Book: I am not secretive about my message and you don’t have to buy my book to understand it. I can summarise its entire contents in one sentence. Do not eat sugar. Some people might want to know why and they can buy the book if they wish. All of the research in it is also freely available on the web, so you don’t even have to buy it for that if you can use Google.

    If not one copy of the book sold but the message about sugar still got out there, then I would be a happy man indeed.


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