We can’t afford to means test schools

By | Education | One Comment

Last week the Centre for Independent Studies, a right-wing think-tank, reheated one of Tony Abbott’s most memorable policy blunders and again called for means testing public education. The only problem is that it’s already been done and is failing miserably.

In Australia, there is no such thing as private education.  We have a system where the taxpayer funds all schools but some of them charge fees on top.  In essence, that is voluntary means testing.  Those with the means sometimes choose to pay extra to add to the taxpayer funding being spent on their child.  By any measure, voluntary means testing has been a disaster and there is nothing to suggest it would be improved by making it mandatory.

According to an analysis of MySchool published last month, a middle class public school in Australia costs taxpayers $11,044 a year per child.  At the catholic school across the street taxpayers are forking out $10,915 and at the Independent school next door they are paying $10,785.  In the slightly less well-off suburb down the road the public-school costs $12,165, the Catholic costs $12,375 and the independent comes in at $11,567.

The parents who choose to submit to voluntary means testing (at the Catholic and Independent schools) will be tipping in anywhere between $3,000 and $25,000 a year on top of the taxpayer funding.

Their extra contribution clearly does not save the taxpayer money.  It just means the community as a whole is paying more to educate those children than would be the case if they simply attended a government run school.

The extra dosh also doesn’t improve the academic outcomes.  Studies have repeatedly shown that when comparing demographically matched kids, all that extra cash buys exactly nothing (except more assets for private organisations).

But ‘means testing’ does significantly degrade the performance of our top performing kids and the education system as a whole.   According to the OECD, this rolling failure is driven in no small part by the segregation of our education system into the haves and the have-nots.

The OECD has been studying the relationship between equity of access and academic performance in its member states since the turn of the century.  It has concluded that the most successful school systems are those that increase equity and limit school choice.  If everybody participates in the same system, everyone’s focus is on making that system better. It should be no surprise then that Australia’s performance on the OECD’s measures of achievement and equity have been consistently sliding while we continue to segregate our schools.

Welfare is a direct payment that benefits only the recipient.  It should be means tested to ensure it is allocated only to those who actually need help. But education is not welfare.  Societies that educate their children do better than societies which don’t.  And societies that educate all their children do better than those that only educate the rich.  Yes, individuals benefit directly from having an education but society as a whole benefits far more from having literate, numerate, employable taxpayers.

Our current system tells us adding a co-payment doesn’t save the taxpayer money, harms performance and destroys equity.  The definition of insanity is doing more of the same thing and expecting a different outcome.  Let’s not be insane with education co-payments.

 

Also published by The Courier Mail

Excerpt from Taming Toxic People

By | Psychopaths | 13 Comments

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Imagine for a minute that you are carving your way, machete in hand, through impenetrable jungle in some terribly exotic place. You happen upon a clearing when suddenly you notice you are not alone. On the other edge of the glen, a stone’s throw from you, stands a tiger. He is staring intently at you. Assessing you. He doesn’t care whether you love your mother, what your favourite colour is or even that tomorrow is your birthday. To him, you are one of just three things: a meal, entertainment or too nasty to bother with.

The tiger will test you. He will growl, bare his teeth, or make an imperceptible, but swift, movement in your direction. These are all tests. He is probing you. Monitoring you for signs of strength or weakness. He will use every faculty millions of years of adaptation have given him, to determine whether you are trouble, or lunch.

You cannot reason with him, you cannot threaten him, you cannot plead for mercy. Your only chance of survival is to convince him that you are more trouble than you are worth. If you manage that, he will turn and walk away without a backward glance. If you can’t, your goose is cooked. Well, eaten.

The tiger’s cold assessment of your meal-worthiness is the same as the one your psychopathic boss, workmate, relative or lover performed on you within the first few seconds of meeting you. This is a book about convincing the tiger you are more trouble than you’re worth. And if you are really brave, it is a book that can tell you how to catch and tame the tiger. After all, who wouldn’t want a pet tiger?

I’ve had the misfortune to encounter a large number of psychopaths. No, I don’t work in a psychiatric unit or a prison. I’ve run across these people in all manner of benign social and work settings. None of these people would satisfy a test for overt criminality. But many skate very close to the edge. Their skill is obtaining a benefit – using criminal or at least, immoral, means – without ever exposing themselves to the force of the law.

I’ve been thinking about writing an easy to understand guide to dealing with psychopaths for a long time. Over the years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of people about the ideas in this book. Every single one (and I mean Every. Single. One.) of those people, often complete strangers, knew exactly what I was talking about. Every single one of them had worked for, been related to, been taught by, been married to or been in a relationship with someone who they felt to be a psychopath. Every one of those people had been profoundly damaged by the experience and most wanted to share their stories as a warning to others and never speak of it again. I didn’t seek out people affected by psychopaths. These were just people I chatted to after giving book talks or interviews, or people I ran into at the coffee shop. The truly amazing thing is that once I described how I believed a psychopath behaved, not a single person could say they had never experienced it. Many did not know that they were describing a psychopath, but believe me, if you have been, or are, a psychopath’s victim, you are not alone.

Why buy Viagra when you can roll your own?

By | Sugar, Vegetable Oils | 4 Comments

Viagra is a drug which helps us get more out of the nitric oxide we naturally produce.  Besides its highly successful commercial use, a recent trial has shown it could make a significant difference to heart disease patients.  But it won’t because – money.

Nitric Oxide is a highly reactive gas created naturally by lightning strikes and less naturally by car exhausts.  It’s also somewhat of a superstar in the biological world.  It was declared molecule of the year in 1992, has its own scientific journal and its own fan club, the Nitric Oxide Society.  And every year about 3,000 new studies about its properties are published.

Biochemists are obsessed by the stuff because it is critical to the way some of our fairly important bits work (brain heart, lungs, immune system, genitalia etc.).  Nitric Oxide is used as a signaling molecule.  It tells one part of our body that another part wants it to do something.  Because it is a gas and it decays within seconds of release it is perfect for the job.  It easily and quickly gets through cell membranes passes on the message and then disappears.  This means we don’t have to go to the bother of having all sorts of mechanisms to clean it up afterwards.

We produce it in loads of places in our body, but critically in the linings of our blood vessels.  The Nitric Oxide produced there seeps into the muscles surrounding them and tells them to relax.  When they relax the blood vessels become wider and blood pressure decreases.

We’ve known since shortly after it was discovered in 1846 that nitroglycerin (yes, the stuff that goes bang) helped a lot with heart disease.  But we didn’t know why until we discovered that when ingested it increases Nitric Oxide levels.  The chaps who made those connections picked up the Nobel prize for medicine in 1998.  Ironically that prize is funded by the estate of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, the safe form of nitroglycerin.  He had heart disease and was prescribed nitroglycerine for it in the late 1800s.

During the 1990s researchers from Pfizer were beavering away on a new drug which helped Nitric Oxide work better.  They wanted to come up with a better way of lowering blood pressure than asking people to suck on explosives.  But when they got to human trial stage of their drug, Sildenafil, they discovered a very lucrative side effect.

The heart wasn’t the only place that Nitric Oxide increased blood flow.  It turned out that it was extraordinarily effective at temporarily fixing erectile dysfunction.   Needless to say, the market for what became Viagra was significantly more tempting than just another blood pressure med.  Financially it was a very good call.  Viagra quickly became a license to print about $2 billion a year for Pfizer.

Rather unsurprisingly a long term study released last year showed just what a good thing they were on.  The study followed 5,956 men with type II diabetes who were taking Viagra.  After almost 8 years, the study found that when compared to matched men not taking the pills, they were 5% less likely to die from anything, 38% less likely to have a heart attack and 15% less likely to die if they did have one.

The heart attack risk reduction makes every other anti-blood pressure or cholesterol lowering medication look like a placebo.  And the reduction in death after heart attack was roughly 8 times as effective as the next best option (a surgically inserted stent).  The Viagra was unbelievably effective and they weren’t even taking it for their health.

That is just one of the, now thousands of, studies on the power of Nitric Oxide.  We now know that if our ability to produce it is in anyway impaired then besides heart disease, we much more likely to also suffer from hypertension, preeclampsia, Type II Diabetes, kidney disease, obesity, and of course erectile dysfunction.  It also plays a part in our learning and long term memory and supercharges our immune system. Obviously then, being able to increase our ability to produce Nitric Oxide should be something we strive for.  Likewise it’s a really good idea to avoid things which impair it.

Besides explosives and Viagra, eating garlic or green leafy vegetables like spinach (yes, Pop-eye was right)or lettuce for example increases Nitric Oxide production.  Exercise and living at high altitudes also does the trick.  But none of that will matter in the least if you also consume fructose or omega-6 fat.

Cane sugar (sucrose) is one half glucose and one half fructose.  The fructose half is unique among sugars we eat in that our liver processes it to fat without any feedback or control.  It was so rare in our evolved environment (there were so few coke machines in Paleolithic times) that we never bothered to develop the capacity to regulate that process.

A waste product from converting fructose to fat is uric acid, a substance that we are very poorly evolved to deal with in the quantities produced when we eat sugar.  Unfortunately for us uric acid reacts with the nitric oxide we produce and disables it.

The omega-6 fats that dominate seed oils (canola, soybean, sunflower, grapeseed, rice-bran and cottonseed) produce highly reactive compounds.  Those compounds directly impair our ability to produce nitric oxide.

Our food supply is now stuffed with sugar and seed oils.  There is barely a product on the supermarket shelf that does not contain one or, more usually, both.  If your aim was to impair our production of nitric oxide you’d struggle to do better than create a food supply which looked like the average supermarket.

Given that, it is little wonder that we are now drowning in the flood of chronic diseases that flow automatically from impaired nitric oxide – heart disease, hypertension, preeclampsia, Type II Diabetes, kidney disease, obesity, dementia, communicable infections and of course erectile dysfunction.

Sadly Viagra is not an option.  It is not approved for use as a heart medication and never will be.  Pfizer will not spend the $100s of millions required to do the required trials now that it is off-patent.  That leaves us with just one solution and it is the same one as always.  Self-medicate with real food that contains neither sugar nor seed oils.

Students will suffer as private schools chase top of the table

By | Education | One Comment

AUSTRALIAN private schools are gaming results league tables to get an edge over their competition.

Valuable taxpayer funds are at stake for the school, but often it is the students who are paying the real price.

In the 1870s, Australians collectively decided we needed a free education system.

Gone would be the state-funded, church-run schools that delivered education only to the privileged few. The broken system of church run-education would be history. Well, at least, it would no longer be subsidised. At the time we knew that the only path to a prosperous future was an equitable education system. The only way for society to prosper was to ensure all of us were educated.

A new order was established. The protestant schools retreated to a rump, educating only those who could afford to pay the full freight. The Catholics opted out entirely and offered an (often) impoverished education in accordance with the dictates from Rome. The rest of Australia set about building one of the most impressive education systems the world had ever seen.

There was no competition between schools. There was no marketing. If you were Catholic, you went to the local parish school. If you were well off or religious (and not Catholic) you went to the local protestant school. And both of you paid your own way. Everybody else just went to the local public school.

That didn’t stop the rent-seeking. Many generations of church leaders repeatedly made the argument for government subsidisation often under the guise of “school choice”. The punter was entitled to government funding, they argued, even if they had opted to have education delivered by someone other than the government.

But the argument was stoically resisted. The churches were told their students opted out of a free public service (as was their right), but it did not entitle them to compensation.

The dam broke in 1964. A generation of politicians caved into the temptation of using school funding as a vehicle for pork barrelling. And once the pork was out of the barrel it couldn’t be shoved back in.

Every year since then, the amount of taxpayer funds channelled to the private sector has inexorably increased. As a result, the sector has almost doubled in size.

So now we have “school choice”. There is a vast array of choices and that selection is getting vaster by the day. The trouble is, with choice comes, well, choices. And to “help” us with those choices, schools need to invest in marketing.

Marketing comes in many forms. It might be that flash billboard. Or it might be that ad on the bus or in the paper. But the most insidious form is the one that doesn’t look like marketing and doesn’t cost a cent, the league table.

Ranked lists of schools are based on the percentage of the cohort who took the university eligible subjects. They are easy to manipulate — if you are entirely without conscience.

Let’s say you have a cohort of 100 students and 10 of those are heading for a top range score. If all 100 kids sit university eligible subjects, your rank percentage for those kids with the high scores will be 10 per cent. But if just the right 20 sit the subjects, you are looking much more respectable at 50 per cent.

That difference could easily bump you from the bottom of a league table to the very top.

All a school needs do is convince the kids who won’t make the school look as good, to pick different “pathways”.

As one teacher wrote in an exposé published last week: “these children’s futures are held to ransom for PR opportunities”.

Parents don’t want our educators focused on manipulating their position in a league table.

We want them focused on how they improve the lot of every single student in their care.

The sooner we shut down the notion of privatised delivery of government funded education (and the marketing that entails), the sooner we can begin to claw our way back to the top of the list of the world’s best education systems.

 

Also published in The Courier Mail

How fathers avoiding Vegetable Oil can prevent Childhood Cancer

By | Vegetable Oils | 3 Comments

We know a smoking father damages sperm and seriously increases childhood cancer risk. But the vegetable oil in that tub of margarine or that splodge of mayo works the same way only many times worse.

Childhood cancers are defined as those diagnosed before the child turns 15.  Together, leukaemia (blood cell cancers), brain tumours and lymphomas account for more than two thirds of all childhood cancers, but leukaemia is by far the most common.

One in 500 Australian children will develop cancer.  That’s 2 new cases every day.  Two children every day!  That is one of the highest rates in the world and it is getting much worse very quickly. A child born in the UK in 1911 was six times less likely to suffer from leukemia than one born today. Australian statistics show identical trends.

The genetic damage that lies behind most childhood cancer is caused by oxidative damage to sperm DNA.  Oxidative stress produces highly toxic and reactive end products which attack the integrity of the DNA carried by sperm.  We normally deal with heavily disrupted cell DNA by repairing it or killing off the damaged cell.  Unfortunately, this is not always the case with sperm.  Human sperm sometimes retain the capacity for fertilization even when their DNA are severely damaged (and this is even more likely with modern assisted reproduction techniques).

We know this for certain because of studies done in men who smoke. Even though those studies have shown smokers are much less fertile than non-smokers, they are not always infertile. The sperm of smokers who remain fertile have DNA that has been damaged by oxidative stress.  This is caused by the inhalation of aldehydes which promote oxidation.

Because DNA-damaged sperm are still able to create viable embryos, the consequences can be cataclysmic.  We have known since at least 1997 that the children of fathers who smoke heavily are four to five times as likely to develop childhood cancers.

Intentionally inhaling toxic aldehydes by smoking is therefore obviously a bad idea for men thinking about having children.  But in the last 50 years Australia’s male smoking rates have been diving almost as fast as the rates of childhood cancer have been increasing.  Now less than 1 in 5 men smoke (down from 3 in 4 after WWII) and more than half have never smoked.

Smoking is clearly not the only source of toxic aldehydes in our environment. We also manufacture them ourselves if we consume too much Omega-6 polyunsaturated fat.  And we can be significantly exposed to them if we inhale the vapours from heating those fats.

These fats dominate oils extracted from seeds like Canola, Rice-Bran, Grapeseed, Sunflower and Almonds or legumes like peanuts and soybeans.  And we are eating too much of them (usually without even being aware of it) because these incredibly cheap oils dominate the 21st century food supply.  We now consume four times as much of these fats as we did a century ago.

If you purchase anything to eat, almost all the fat components will be these oils. The mayo on your takeaway sandwich will be made from sunflower oil, as will the margarine.  Anything fried will have been cooked in cottonseed or canola oil, no matter how flash the joint you purchased it from.  All the breads and other baked goods will have been made using seed oils and so will all the dressings, dips and sauces.

It is no surprise then that as oxidation fuel increases in the form of vegetable oil in our food, then so too will the rate of childhood cancers. If we do nothing about the presence of these fats in our food, we can expect to see the rate of those cancers continue to climb dramatically.

But there is a surprising lack of interest in the science of oxidation from those who campaign hardest on the issue of childhood cancers.  The Leukemia Foundation for example, raised $26 million dollars last year, spent $11 million doing so, put $8.5 million towards patient support and spent just over $2 million on research focused on cures.  It did not spend a cent on prevention.   The Childhood Cancer Institute raised $36 million, spent $7 million doing so, and spent $25 million on research focused on cures.  It did spend money on prevention but this was focused on finding drugs to stop cancer developing in the embryo.

A look through their websites quickly explains their focus.  As far as these organisations are concerned, we don’t know what causes childhood cancers.  But that is not the state of the evidence.  We know oxidative stress causes sperm DNA damage of the sort which results in childhood cancer.  We know that cigarette smoke induces the required state of oxidative stress by inhalation of toxic aldehydes.  And we know that consumption of seed oils does exactly the same thing only worse.

There is clearly an accelerating need for the patient care options funded by these charities.  But if we don’t want them to have twice as many customers in a decade, they need to focus of prevention as well.

When they have the national spotlight with something like ‘World’s Greatest Shave’ they need to do more than ask for money.  They need to do as Red Nose does and tell us how to reduce our risk of harm.

They need to tell us about the danger of seed oils and we need them to be campaigning hard to stop those substances being put in our food.  Until they do that they are no better than a band-aid on a cut that grows wider and deeper by the day.

Why vegetable oils are much more deadly than cigarettes.

By | Big Fat Lies, Vegetable Oils | 12 Comments

Smoking and vegetable oils cause disease via exactly the same mechanism. We don’t force our children to smoke, so why are we forcing them to consume vegetable oils?

People who smoke are up to six times more likely to suffer from heart disease than non-smokers. So it should not be surprising that researchers have concluded that the significant reduction in smoking over the last 50 years has been a major driver behind the parallel reduction in heart disease rates. Though you might be surprised to discover that until very recently, scientists have had no idea why that might be.

Cancer accounts for less than a third of deaths attributable to smoking whereas heart disease and stroke accounts for almost half. Lung cancer is an obvious consequence of inhaling a cloud of chemicals intentionally. But figuring out how that might be related to ‘clogged arteries’ has been a little tricky. And it hasn’t been made any easier by a fundamental error in our understanding of heart disease.

If your base assumption is that dietary saturated fat clogs up the arteries and causes heart disease, then it’s hard to see how smoking would make the slightest bit of difference. But in the last 15 years that simplistic explanation has been turned on its head. Yes, the immediate cause is blockage, but that blockage is the result of a process of inflammation and immune responses, not because a lump of bacon fat got stuck.

We now know that heart disease is caused by oxidative stress provoking an immune response which starts as damage to the arteries and can ultimately end in heart disease. And thanks to a decade of significant research in the area, we know that chemicals contained in cigarette smoke directly cause exactly the required state of oxidation, inflammation and immune response. Specifically, those chemicals are α,β-unsaturated aldehydes (aldehydes for short).

It turns out that burning tobacco is a really excellent way to produce aldehydes in seriously dangerous quantities. And inhaling the smoke produced is an almost perfect way to get them into our bloodstream. Once aldehydes are in our body, the damage they can cause extends way beyond heart disease. They are powerfully toxic carcinogens as well and likely (via sperm mutation) to play a primary role in the development of childhood cancers.

This is why the US surgeon general found in 2006 that smoking impacts nearly ‘every organ of the body’ and that there is ‘no risk-free level of exposure’ to cigarette smoke (even if you aren’t the one doing the smoking).

But intentionally sucking in aldehydes from burning grass isn’t the only way to come across them, we can also make them ourselves if we have too much omega-6 polyunsaturated fat in our diet. Vegetable oil made from seeds (Canola, Sunflower, Corn, Safflower, Grapeseed, Rice Bran and Soybean for example) -seed oils – are very high in omega-6 fats. When we eat those fats they are incorporated into every cell membrane in our body and create a state of oxidative stress which results in the production of these highly toxic aldehydes.

Ironically, the Heart Foundation’s misguided understanding of how heart disease worked has led them to tell us to consume more of the very substance which we now know causes it and most of the cancers which now afflict us. These seed oils are exactly the substances that the Heart Foundation has been telling us to consume instead of ‘artery clogging’ saturated fats for the last five decades. And we have dutifully done as we are told.

McDonald’s for example switched from frying in Beef Fat to Canola oil in 2004 after incessant pressure from the Heart Foundation. And KFC followed suit in 2012. Seed oils are now the primary source of fat in almost all food on the supermarket shelf, at the local snack bar and served in every restaurant.

While the aldehydes we make ourselves (from consuming too much seed oil) are devastating enough, it is now becoming abundantly clear that we can make them even more dangerous than they already are. All we need to do is heat them before we eat them.

A study released late 2015 found that when oils containing Omega-6 fats are heated at a normal cooking temperature (of 180⁰C), they create significant quantities of aldehydes. And each time the oil was re-used the concentration increased massively. The study showed that by the fifth day of oil re-use it had 5 times the concentration of these chemicals that it had on the first (which was already alarmingly high).

This is why we are now seeing lung cancer (for example) affect large numbers of people who have never smoked but who do cook with seed oils. And it also likely to be the reason why, even though the average smoker now smokes much less than the average smoker in the 1960s, they are much more likely to die from smoking related diseases.

The science has converged on a single unifying truth. Many cancers and heart disease are caused by aldehydes. And whether we encounter them by smoking, inhaling other people’s smoke, inhaling vapours from food frying or by eating the food cooked with those seed oils, the damage is the same and it is devastating.

None of this is speculation. It well established science that is being ignored by those we trust to advise us about our health. They are happy to accept that exposing us to cigarette smoke will cause heart disease and cancer. They are even happy to accept that it is a major risk factor for childhood cancer in children who have never been exposed to smoke. But when science tells us that seed oils work by exactly the same mechanism, they tell us to consume more. They might as well force us and our kids to have a 3 pack a day habit – and offer us a light.

 

Image Credits: Risks from Smoking from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Toxic Oils from The Telegraph.

 

Drug Companies are throwing billions at a disease that can be cured with 3 words

By | Conflicts of Interest, Sugar | 3 Comments

Liver Disease is the next big gold mine for the pharmaceutical industry.  Billions are being spent on an elusive drug cure.  But not one cent is being spent on the one thing we know will cure it – quitting sugar.

Liver diseases fall into two main groups, those caused by viruses (Hepatitis – currently afflicting about 518,000 Australians), and, accounting for the other 90 odd per cent of cases, those caused by ‘lifestyle’ (5.5 million people).

The lifestyle group is usually further divided into drinkers (who have the same symptoms but have a history of consuming  more than 2 standard drinks per day for women or 3 for men) and everybody else.  Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease now affects 6,203 people but Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) afflicts a massive 5,538,677 Australians.  That’s a pretty big number for a disease was first identified just over 3 decades ago.

As the name suggests, NAFLD starts out as an accumulation of fat in the liver.  It can then progress through various disease stages and ultimately end in cirrhosis requiring a liver transplant (if you’re lucky enough to find a donor).   There is no other cure.

There are very few symptoms until the later disease stages, so most people are unaware that they have it all. There is also no way to diagnose it other than using a liver biopsy, an invasive procedure done under anaesthetic.

NAFLD is frequently described as the liver component of the metabolic syndrome (elevated blood fats, insulin resistance and obesity), because it’s rapid growth has paralleled the same runaway growth in each of the diseases which are a consequence of the syndrome.  More than 90% of obese people and up to 70% of people with Type II Diabetes have NAFLD.

The number of people with NAFLD is accelerating at a tremendous rate.  If you make it to the ripe old age of 50 you have a 2 in 5 chance of having the disease today in Australia.

Even worse, the age of onset is declining rapidly.  A study published in 2013 revealed that the number of US teenagers with the disease more than doubled in the last 20 years and then affected almost 11% of US children aged 12-19.  An ongoing Australian study estimates the rate is even higher in our kids (12.9%).  This means the average high school classroom now contains four children suffering from chronic liver disease.  Every classroom.  Four kids.

It might have no symptoms, but NAFLD is not a harmless disease.  It significantly increases the risk of developing cirrhosis (liver scarring and inflammation) and liver cancer.  Liver cancer has more than tripled in Australia in the last three decades.  It is almost always fatal within months of diagnosis.

Of course, none of this has escaped the notice of the drug companies.  Explosive growth in a chronic disease means there is money to be made.  Analysts are predicting that the global market for liver disease medication could be worth US$35 billion a year.

Drug companies have already spent billions on 25 experimental compounds.  As yet, none have been proven to work, but the potential goldmine is so deep and so wide that they won’t be giving up anytime soon.  Drugs that must be taken by healthy people for their whole lives are a gift the drug industry hasn’t seen since they convinced us to take statins.

Even though one of the liver’s functions is to make fat from any excess carbohydrates we consume, the fat is normally exported for storage in all the places that make our jeans too tight.  NAFLD starts when the liver’s ability to export fat is overwhelmed.  The excess fat remains in the liver and eventually progresses to significant liver scarring.

All but one carbohydrate triggers an insulin response which shuts down appetite and stops us eating too much (and therefore producing fat). The one carbohydrate which subverts this handy appetite control feature is fructose.  Fructose also bypasses an important control step which directly stops too much fat being stored in the liver.

So of course, recent nutrition research has focused on whether fructose (and its primary modern delivery vehicle, sugar or sucrose) might be the source of the sudden explosion in NAFLD. As a result, over the last decade research that proves that sugar is the culprit has been pouring in.

Scientists have shown that you can give ducks and rats NAFLD using fructose.  Those were followed by a series of human studies have also shown that the consumption of soft drinks is strongly associated with the onset of NAFLD).  And in 2012 a pair of randomized human trials from Scandinavia advanced the case even further.

The first trial involved feeding four groups of people four different drinks (Coke, milk, Diet Coke and water).  After 6 months of this, the Coke group had massively (140%) increased liver fat (as well as significantly increased blood pressure, cholesterol and blood triglycerides).  The folks knocking back Diet Coke and water were pretty much the way they were at the start and the milk drinkers had even slightly improved their liver fat status.

A similar story unfolded in the second trial.  Some very unfortunate volunteer humans were put on the path to NAFLD (27% increase in liver fat) in just three weeks by overfeeding them chocolates, pineapple juice, soft drinks and sports drinks. And to top it all off, in a study published this month, researchers found that fructose consumption in teens was independently associated with a 61% increase in the risk of developing serious liver damage.

The trials are done, the evidence is clear.  Fructose consumption causes NAFLD in exactly the same way that alcohol causes Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.  NAFLD’s alcoholic cousin can be usually be reversed by ensuring the patient avoids alcohol.  And the science tells us avoidance of sugar would work just as well to turn around NAFLD and prevent its deadly cascades.

When the harm is significant, the cause is clear and the solution even clearer, we do not need to spend billions a year looking for new drugs. NAFLD currently has at least a quarter of the population, and 1 in 8 kids, on an expressway to a liver transplant (if the rest of the metabolic syndrome doesn’t get us first).  Yet it can be easily and effectively reversed with a pathetically simple piece of advice – don’t eat sugar.

We are overflowing with national health agencies, specialist doctors and charities charged with keeping our liver well.  But not one of them is telling us about the only proven cure.  Those groups need to immediately start giving that advice unequivocally and fighting hard on the side of sugar abstinence.  Given the incontrovertible state of the evidence, the current gormless hand-waving is nothing short of negligence.

How Big Food is using our health system as a marketing tool.

By | Big Fat Lies, Conflicts of Interest, Sugar, Vegetable Oils | 2 Comments

Nestle, Danone and others like them, use our health system as a tool for flogging cheap and addictive powdered milk products.  Regulators have clamped down on them doing it with baby formula, now it is time to stop them doing it to our elderly.

In the early 1970s Nestle decided to exploit mothers in developing countries.  The plan was to convince breastfeeding mothers that using Nestle formulas was healthier for their children than breastfeeding them.

Nestle had realized that many mothers in Africa, Asia and South America had a strong desire to imitate Western culture.  So they leveraged this by implying that formula was the modern way to feed babies.  Anything else was old fashioned and primitive.

The aggressive marketing was extraordinarily effective. Formula sales took off like a rocket (the market is now worth $25 billion a year) but so did the incidence of childhood diseases in the developing world.  Drinking water was often unsafe and mixing it with milk powder and sugar didn’t do anything to fix that.

Breastfeeding protected children from the vagaries of the local water supply.  It is also free and doesn’t drain critically important money away from families who can least afford to buy formula.  The cost often results in mothers using less powder than required to make the tin stretch further.  So even if the water is clean the child is undernourished.

Nestle’s aggressive marketing led, in 1977, to a worldwide boycott of Nestle’s products.  And as a result, in 1981, the World Health Organization (WHO) created guidelines on the marketing of formula, but to this day there are continual breaches in the developing world and many of the groups who started the boycott continue to fight against Nestle and others.

The message was equally effective with Australian mothers.  Manufacturers provided formula ‘donations’ to Hospital nurseries and in hospital promotions often delivered by healthcare workers. And it worked.  Breastfeeding in Australia fell to record low levels in the 1970s.  In 1972 just one in 20 children was breastfed for 12 months.

In 1992 the Australian government finally implemented a voluntary code (based on the WHO rules developed more than a decade earlier) which severely restricted the way infant formula could be marketed and include a requirement that mother’s be told breast is best in all marketing material.  Promotion cannot occur at all on healthcare facilities and healthcare workers cannot receive any form of inducement to promote the products.  If formula is donated to an institution, it can only be used for children who a doctor has determined requires formula.

The code is voluntary but all the major manufacturers has signed on and breastfeeding rates are now 6-fold what they were in 1972 (although they are still just a third of the WHO recommended level).  Even so, Nestle and others continue to circumvent the ban on marketing by advertising unregulated toddler milks with exactly the same packaging and branding as the infant formulas.

But that is just fiddling at the edges compared to the latest gold mine for medical formula reps – the elderly.

Doctors are rightly concerned that older people not suffer from under-nutrition. They take weight loss among the elderly very seriously and therein lies the opportunity for Nestle and others (such as Danone, the maker of the Fortisip range).  These companies actively markets the use of food supplements for elderly patients, whether they are losing weight or not.  Hospitals and dietitians are encouraged to use things like the Nestle Nutritional Assessment tool to assess the need for supplements. Using that tool it would be almost impossible not to be assessed as requiring supplementation.

These powdered milk concoctions are offered as drinks with (or even instead of) hospital meals and patients are provided with order forms (often by dietitians employed by the hospital) for discounted purchase after they are discharged.  The products themselves are usually just hideously overprice powdered milk, sugar and a multi-vitamin and sometimes a dab of seed oil just for good measure.

The ingredients are very similar to Up&Go except they can have loads more sugar and sometimes a pile of seed oil as well.

Fortisip Vanilla Ready to Drink Sustagen Hospital Powder UP&GO Vanilla Ice Ready to Drink
water, maltodextrin, milk protein, sucrose, vegetable oil (canola oil, sunflower oil), tri potassium citrate, emulsifier (soy lecithin), flavour, magnesium chloride, acidity regulator, tri calcium phosphate, carotenoids, choline chloride, calcium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, sodium L-ascorbate, ferrous lactate, zinc sulphate, colour, magnesium hydroxide, nicotinamide, retinyl acetate, copper gluconate, DL-α tocopheryl acetate, sodium selenite, manganese sulphate, calcium D-pantothenate, chromium chloride, D-biotin, cholecalciferol, thiamin hydrochloride, pterolylmonoglutamic acid, pyridoxine hydrochloride, cyanoccobalamin, sodium molybdate, riboflavin, sodium flouride, potassium iodide, phytomenadione Non Fat Milk Solids (63%), Corn Syrup Solids, Whole Milk Powder, Sugar, Minerals (Magnesium Hydrogen Phosphate, Ferric Pyrophosphate, Zinc Gluconate, Copper Gluconate, Manganese Sulphate, Sodium Molybdate, Chromium Trichloride, Sodium Selenite), Vitamins (C, E, Niacinamide, A, D3, B6, B1, B2, Folic Acid, K1, B12), Stabiliser (414), Flavour. water, skim milk powder, cane sugar, wheat maltodextrin, soy protein, vegetable oils (sunflower, canola), vegetable fibre, hi-maize™ starch, corn syrup solids, flavours, fructose, oat flour, mineral (calcium), acidity regulator (332), vegetable gums (460, 466, 407), stabiliser (452), salt, vitamins (C, niacin, A, B12, B6, B2, B1, folate).
Sugar: 13.3% Sugar: 45% Sugar: 7.6%
Polyunsaturated Fat: 2.8% Polyunsaturated fat: 0.8% Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.7%

The sugar in Sustagen had until May 2016, been glucose.  But then Nestle decided to ‘improve the nutritional profile’ by replacing the much of the glucose with cane sugar.  Effectively this means they replaced half the nutritionally harmless glucose with toxic fructose.  Yep, the same fructose that has been nailed as causing Type II diabetes, Obesity, Fatty Liver Disease and probably Alzheimer’s disease (just to name a few of its greatest hits).

I can’t see how introducing a confirmed source of chronic disease improves the nutritional profile (and they have refused to respond to my written requests for an explanation), but I can see how it improves the financial profile of Nestle.  Sustagen’s competition all use it.  Fructose is highly addictive, so products that contain it always sell better than products without it.  And since the aim of this game seems to be follow on sales after the patient leaves hospital, an addictive product would be a better choice. Commercially its a no-brainer.

The seed oils in many of these products cause cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s Disease osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (just to name a few of the greatest hits). Seed oils are cheap as chips, so using them instead of milk fat increases the profit margin.  Another commercial no-brainer.

These products are being directly promoted and marketed to patients within our healthcare system, something which would be prohibited if they were infant formula.   Nobody, but especially not a sick elderly person, needs sugar and (often) seed oil, loaded milk powder.  Nestle and their mates were barred from using hospitals as a sales tool for infant formula and its time the same thing happened for this garbage as well.

It’s probably not a good idea to smear endocrine disrupting chemicals all over your children’s bodies

By | Big Fat Lies, Conflicts of Interest | 6 Comments

There has been a bit of fuss lately about people getting seriously burnt even though they used sunscreen.  For a while now, I’ve been a little concerned about the long list of unpronounceable names on the back of our ever-present library of sunscreens. Prompted by the latest bout of bad news, I decided to finally do the research I’d been putting off. So far, the results are both infuriating and worrying.

I was a kid during the slip, slop, slap era. We were told (by a seagull with a lisp) to thlip on a shirt, thlop on sunscreen and thlap on a hat. There is absolutely no doubt that overexposure to the UV radiation in sunlight is likely a cause of skin cancer (although probably not melanoma). And so advice aimed at ensuring we minimize that risk is smart. This is particularly true in a country where most of us have a complexion more suited to Norway than the equator.

Staying out of the sun and wearing a hat and long sleeved shirt are all very effective ways of keeping our sun exposure at safe levels. The trouble is doing that is often incompatible with our favourite activities. Young netballers want to look like the Diamonds (who play indoors at night) so wear short dresses with cutout shoulders. We want to spend all day at the beach, not five minutes, and while we’re there we don’t want to be rugged up like we’re on a polar mission.

This has meant that increasingly, sunscreen has become the all-purpose panacea. The Thlip, Tholp, Thlap messaging hasn’t changed but we have decided we can do what we like and dress how we like, whenever we like, as long as we load up on the sunscreen first. Sunscreen has changed from our last line of defence to the only thing we do.

Because sunscreen has become the must-have accessory, the market for it has exploded. And like all rapidly expanding markets there is lots of ‘innovation’ to tempt the consumer from one brand to another.

When I was happily watching the lispy seagull tell me about the virtues of thlapping on sunscreen, I knew exactly what he meant. The tub of white zinc in the bathroom. It wasn’t exactly pleasant stuff. It had approximately the sticking power of superglue and the durability of house paint, but it did the job. No sun was getting through zinc in hurry. But it was difficult to apply and pretty greasy so there was plenty of scope for competition.

Now we can choose from thousands of products. Products for children, products that can be sprayed on, products that can be rolled on, products for sporty people, products to wear everyday and even products for babies. We don’t take time of day or sunniness into consideration at all, even when toting babies, because there’s a sunscreen for everything.

That greasy zinc was a physical barrier. It worked exactly the way house paint would work, by blocking out the sun. Two innovations enabled the explosion of more ‘user-friendly’ sunscreens, pulverizing the zinc so it didn’t stay white on the skin (but still worked) and the use of a whole new class of sunscreen that relied on chemical reactions to diffuse the UV radiation. Those chemical sunscreens are now what make up the majority of the stuff on the supermarket shelf.

Almost all chemical sunscreens sold in Australia are a mix of (generally) 4-methylbenzylidene-camphor (4MBC), Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC), Oxybenzone, Homosalate, Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane and Octocrylene. And despite the huge variety in prices, labels and bottle shapes, there isn’t that much variety in what’s in them.

The problem with these convenient chemicals is that there is mounting evidence that they are endocrine disruptors – meaning they can affect human hormones (particularly reproductive and thyroid hormones).

4-MBC for example, is not approved for use in the US or Japan because the safety data is not sufficient. It is permitted in Europe but manufacturers and importers in Denmark agreed not to include it in sunscreen products marketed for children under 12. This was then extended to all products to ensure pregnant and breastfeeding women were not exposed (as the chemical was found to be present in breast milk).

Oxybenzone acts like estrogen in the body, alters sperm production in animals and is associated with endometriosis in women. OMC has produced reproductive system and thyroid alterations in animal studies using doses similar to those used in sunscreens. Other studies have raised similar concerns about many of the other chemicals commonly used in sunscreens. Worse than that these substances appear to accumulate in humans (and the environment).

At the moment however, Australian regulators are happy to impose limits on the amounts that can be used rather than ban them outright. This is because they are not satisfied that sufficient quantities are absorbed through the skin to do damage. Frankly that is not terribly reassuring. These assessments typically do not assess the risk from inhaling aerosol or spray sunscreens or from ingesting them (for example by swimming in a pool or beach with people covered in sunscreen).

Similar concerns have been raised about the DNA disrupting potential of nano particles of zinc and titanium. Once again studies have shown them not to be absorbed at significant levels. But that proviso goes out the window when they are sprayed in the air or washed off in the pool.

The chemicals used in most sunscreens are not inert or harmless and many of them are banned in more cautious countries.  But here their use is being championed mercilessly by an industry wearing a health halo. Leading the charge is the Cancer Council of Australia, an organization which itself makes almost $3m a year from selling sunscreens full of these chemicals. We are told to wear these sunscreens all the time and many of us do. Rather than adjust our lifestyle to the reality of dangerous radiation (as our parents did), we prefer to do exactly as we please and slather ourselves with these chemicals.

The evidence is worrying enough for me not to want to expose my kids to those substances on purpose. So we try to avoid being in the sun at all during the middle of the day and if we are, we’ll be wearing a hat and shirt as well as a sunscreen containing the only the ingredient that everybody agrees is safe, Zinc Oxide.

That immediately rules out anything sold by the Cancer Council and all the cheap sunscreens. But Invisible Zinc and many of the herbal gerbil brands are fine. Doing this still doesn’t save us from drinking the stuff everybody else is wearing at the beach and the pool but it’s the best I can do.

Tablets: Weapons of mass distraction in the classroom

By | Education | No Comments

They cost a fortune and cause havoc at home and yet more and more Australian schools are insisting that younger and younger children be equipped with personal computing devices at school. And even though children (and many educators) love them, there is growing evidence that, far from helping our kids, these devices are likely to be the source of serious harm.

As many of us get our kids ready for school this year, we’ll discover a new and very expensive addition to the booklist. Many Australian schools are requiring that children come equipped with their own personal gaming device, sorry, their own personal computer, for use at school.

It’s a story being repeated in the countries whose education systems are failing even faster than ours (the US and the UK in particular). Like Australia, those countries, guarantee the right to a free education.

Schools can’t technically require a parent to purchase the expensive devices. But, like Australia, the peer pressure on students and parents alike means that almost everybody has one.

Now, however, some parents are pushing back because they say the devices are a distraction in the classroom and almost impossible to police at school and at home.

The push to require younger and younger children to use computers is driven by the simplistic argument that they will be ‘left behind’ if they don’t. Since computer use will inevitably be required in whatever career they choose, the earlier they start the better, or so the story goes.

The same argument could be made for driving a car, but oddly very few schools are integrating driving lessons into their preschool programs.

The reason is obvious, people will get hurt and the potential benefits are massively outweighed by the risks. There is nothing to suggest the equation is any different for personal computing devices in the classroom. And even putting aside the patent absurdity of teaching students to use tech that will be obsolete by next Tuesday (let alone when they graduate), schools have so far been blinded by the flash of the new.

Increasingly parents are demanding to see evidence that schoolroom devices deliver educational results. And while there is evidence of benefit for repetitive learning when a computer is shared by a small group there is a surprising dearth of evidence for personal devices in class. Worse, evidence of direct harm is accumulating rapidly.

Because of the enormous cost of doing it properly, controlled trials are pretty rare in education. But scientists from the MIT Department of Economics have recently published exactly that. They randomly divided the entire first year of a US college introductory economics course into 3 groups. One group had unrestricted access to tablets in class. The second group could use them but they had to be flat on the desk. And the third group had no access at all.

The results were significant. The students who had no in-class access to devices consistently outperformed all other students by almost two per cent.

And while that doesn’t sound mind blowing, falling behind two per cent in just one semester can accumulate to quite an academic disaster if it’s multiplied by the 24 semesters of education most Australian kids get through.

Interestingly the results for each of the groups who had access were the same. It didn’t matter whether the students had open slather access or strictly controlled access, their performance was impaired.

Add that evidence of academic harm to the accumulating pile of health (especially psychological) impacts (such as increased aggression, e-bullying, ADHD and psychosis) and there are very real concerns about letting these devices into classrooms. It is one of the reasons that one of the world’s best education systems, Finland, bans personal devices in the classroom and it could be part of why many Asian school systems with relatively low computer use are pulling away from us academically.

As Dr Nicholas Kardaras (author of Glow Kids) put it, ‘If screens are indeed digital drugs, then schools have become drug dealers.’ Schools shouldn’t be encouraging in-school (and at-home) use of devices designed purposefully to encourage procrastination. And they certainly shouldn’t be doing it on the say-so of the local iPad dealer.

We do not need our schools to become part of the problem. We do not need our schools to be dealers in digital distraction. And most of all we do not need to throw up more barriers to equitable access to education.

But we do need our schools to demand proof of significant benefit before they become the unpaid salesforce of multinational computer companies. And most of all, we need them to hit the pause button while they figure it out.

First published by The Courier Mail

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