If the Heart Foundation and Dietitians Association didn’t exist, would the food industry need to invent them?

By | Big Fat Lies, Conflicts of Interest, Sugar, Vegetable Oils | 7 Comments

The Dietitians Association of Australia and the Australian Heart Foundation spend quite a bit of their time attacking what they call “Fad Diets”.  Unfortunately, their flat out disregard for the evidence is making their statements sound more and more like press releases issued by the processed food industry.

I don’t pretend to know what is motivating either of them, but I do know that both have financial backing from the industries which stand to lose the most if there is widespread adoption of many of the diets they declare to be fads (for example reducing sugar, seed oils, or more recently paleo).

The Dietitians Association’s sponsors include Nestle (the second largest manufacturer of breakfast cereals in Australia and no slouch when it comes to moving other forms of sugar either), Unilever (largest margarine manufacturer in Australia) and the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council (a lobby group funded by all the major breakfast cereal manufacturers)

The Australian Heart Foundation is not overtly sponsored by anyone.  But the processed food industry has found a way to rent the Heart Foundation’s healthy halo.

It’s called the Tick Program. Processed foods can gain endorsement from the Heart Foundation by doing what they were going to do anyway. They wanted to use seed oils instead of animal fats because they are loads cheaper. Tick – foods that use seed oils are given preference. They wanted to use tons of sugar because food with sugar sells better than food without. Tick – sugar is not a criteria. They want to sell breakfast cereals because they are vehicles for sugar (and the margins are stupendous). Tick – whole grains are encouraged for their fibre.

The program is a nice little earner for the Heart Foundation, pulling in $2.8m in 2013 alone. The only problem is that, through the Tick Program, the Heart Foundation now finds itself in the position of having endorsed hundreds of products that the science says are very dangerous to our health.

The World Health Organisation, the Canadian Heart Foundation and the American Heart Association all regard sugar as a dangerous additive to food because there is convincing evidence that it is “associated with heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, high blood cholesterol, cancer and tooth decay.”  But the Australian Heart Foundation is earning millions from its endorsement of products like ‘Mayonnaise’ that has more sugar than Coke, a children’s snack which is 73% sugar and spreads made of the very oils which science says almost doubles the risk of heart disease death.

That is what we lawyers call a conflict of interest. When doctors experience a conflict of interest (say by accepting gifts from pharmaceutical companies), the regulators tighten the rules and (no matter how much it hurts the doctors) attempt to put the brakes on the gravy train.

The same thing happens in just about any profession we depend upon for expert knowledge. We have to be able to trust paid specialists. And no matter how morally astute they believe they are, we cannot allow them be led into temptation by conflicts of interest. If we do, we can never be sure if they are giving us advice based on the best evidence or on their own financial interest.

And if by chance you think that the existence of, say, a tick program makes no difference to the advice being dispensed, you need look no further than the Canadian Heart Foundation.  In June, they killed off their tick program.  Before June, they were happily handing out ticks to Slush Puppies and children’s snacks where sugar was the primary ingredient.  After June they were attacking the sugar sellers like they were on commission for the sale of Sweet Poison.

So when the Dietitians Association and the Heart Foundation fly into a frenzy to decry a diet which asks people to avoid processed food, any thinking person would ask, why?  Is there science behind this or have these two venerable organisations simply become mouthpieces for the processed food industry that provides them with such significant financial support?  Such is the corrosive power of conflicts of interest.

There are now very persuasive reasons to worry about their advice that we should consume seed oils (vegetable oils). And there is just as compelling evidence that ignoring sugar is taking a daily toll on the health of all Australians.

We need the Heart Foundation to follow the lead of the Canadian Heart Foundation and immediately trash its Tick program. And we need our dietitians to throw off the yoke of corporate sponsorship and provide evidence based dietary advice untainted by the smell of food industry money.

We don’t need the guardians of our health attacking a scientifically (and logically) defensible aversion to processed food. We need them guarding our health without fear or favour (especially without favour).

The Canadian Heart Foundation comes down hard on Sugar

By | Conflicts of Interest, Sugar, Sweet Poison | 7 Comments

In June this year that Canadian Heart & Stroke Foundation (the Canadian HSF) killed off its ‘Health Check Program.’  Just like the Australian Heart Foundation’s ‘Tick Program’, the HSF Check had been plumbing new lows in prostituting health advice to the interests of the food industry.

Perhaps it was when it took money to put a ‘Check’ on Slush Puppies or maybe it was when they endorsed a children’s snack that was 80% sugar.  Maybe it was just the combined weight of the evidence against sugar, so neatly summarised by the World Health Organisation in January.  But whatever the cause, eventually they did the right thing and said no to Food Industry money.

Now that the interests of their sponsors count for naught, they have released a powerful position statement on sugar.  In a single document they have catapulted themselves from handmaiden of the processed food industry to the world leader in health policy.  They have looked at the evidence and made a persuasive case for immediate action on sugar.

Pay attention Australian Heart Foundation they are making you look like the fools that you are.

In Canada In Australia
No less than 17 major studies are cited in support of a statement that sugar is associated with:

  • heart disease,
  • stroke,
  • obesity,
  • diabetes,
  • high blood cholesterol,
  • cancer and
  • tooth decay.
“sugar … [is] only important in relation to [tooth decay]. … There is no scientific consensus that sugar … causes heart disease.”
Sugar consumption (from all sources) should be no more than 10% (12 teaspoons per day – less than half current Canadian consumption) and preferably less than 5% (6 teaspoons).  “Rather than making choices based on sugar content alone see what else a food offers nutritionally.”
Food labelling needs to be significantly improved to show sugar content properly [sound of crickets]
The Government should:

  • act to reduce the amount of sugar in the food supply
  • tax soft drinks
  • support education programs aimed at reducing sugar
  • restrict marketing to children
  • avoid partnerships with producers of high sugar foods
  • Ban the sale of sugary drinks in hospitals and schools
  • Educate parents on how to avoid sugar in the lunch-box
[more crickets]
The Heart Foundation recommends people avoid packaged and prepared food. The Heart Foundation earns money from the sale of packaged food where sugar is a primary ingredient in the product.

 

Why is the ABC censoring debate on anti-cholesterol drugs?

By | Big Fat Lies, Conflicts of Interest | 5 Comments

Last week the British Medical Journal did something that the ABC, our so called independent broadcaster, was terrified to do just a few months earlier. It stared down an attack from the pharmaceutical industry over articles it had published on the dangers of statins (cholesterol lowering drugs). But it’s not too late for the ABC to stop behaving like a drug company marketing department and start behaving like an independent national broadcaster.

In October 2013, Dr Maryanne Demasi, produced a two part series for the ABC’s Catalyst program. The first part suggested saturated fat and cholesterol do not cause heart disease. The show was enormously popular, pulling an audience of 944,000, something which is unheard of for the staid science doco. But it was the promo for Part 2 that really lit up the switchboard.

The Second Part promised to delve into statins, the ubiquitous anti-cholesterol drugs prescribed to a third of Australian adults over the age of 50. Even before it was aired there were strident calls for the show to be killed. One particularly hysterical radio presenter even warned that watching the show may cause people to stop taking statins – something that “could kill them.”

Nevertheless, in a rare display of courage, the ABC risked our lives and ran the show anyway. As promised, it dared to suggest that statins are not everything the marketing spin would have us believe. They are frequently prescribed for people where there is no demonstrated benefit, and they present significant and potentially life threatening side effects. Almost a million Australians tuned in and, as you might expect when a multi-billion dollar revenue stream is on the line, the backlash was intense.

The ABC did what it should do in such circumstances, it launched an independent investigation. Six months later, the ABC’s independent Audience and Consumer Affairs unit presented the results. They found the first show was accurate and impartial and neither the ‘for’ or ‘against’ arguments were misrepresented. But when it came to the second part they found the show failed to mention that statins have benefits when it comes to non-fatal outcomes (for people who have already had a heart attack).

As the problem was a failure to disclose relevant information, the recommended remedy was to provide that information on the ABC’s website. Unfortunately at this point the ABC went to water. Instead of uploading a statement to that effect and moving on, the ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott, decided censorship was the way to go.

He ordered the immediate removal of both programs from the ABC website and also hunted down the copies which were by then appearing on YouTube. They were to cease to exist. Everybody should immediately forget there was ever any such thing.

I get it. The ABC copped a lot of flak from the drug companies and they are very big and very scary. But that is no reason start behaving like a third world despot. The whimpering failure of the ABC to stand up for its story (and the journalist who produced it) is all the more pathetic when compared to the steely resolve displayed by the British Medical Journal over the same issue just last week.

At the same time as the Catalyst show was airing, the BMJ had published an article which questioned the evidence behind statin use in Britain. Like the Catalyst story, the paper claimed that the risks (from side-effects) outweighed any potential benefit. A related article published the same week suggested side effects occur in 18% of people taking statins.

The expected complaints flooded in. Leading the charge was Sir Rory Collins head of an organisation which had received well over a quarter of a billion pounds in drug company funding in the previous two decades. He wanted the ABC solution – immediate disappearing of the articles.

As you might expect, the BMJ launched an independent investigation. Their report, delivered last week, found a minor correction was needed and that nothing else was required. There was certainly no cause to remove the papers. They also pointed out that it was very difficult to determine whether statins were safe or not because the drug companies refuse to make the trial data publicly available.

Statins now consume 1 in every 7 taxpayer dollars spent on drugs in this country. When we choose to spend that much on statins, we are choosing to deny patients access to many other potentially lifesaving treatments.  But statins are not cures for anything, they are a barely effective preventative measure. For most of the people taking them there will be no benefit whatsoever. Worse, there are increasingly obvious signs that statins could inflict serious harm.

But this is not a story about statins. It is a story about censorship.

Rather than promoting an honest discussion of the evidence (well, at least the evidence the drug companies will let us see), our National Broadcaster purged the internet of even the remotest suggestion there is anything wrong.

ABC, we depend on you to display the backbone shown by the BMJ. We need you not to cave into crass commercial interest at the first whiff of controversy. You made the wrong call. The BMJ has made that abundantly clear. But it’s not too late to salvage your reputation. Reinstate the programs and do it now.

Oh, and just to show you haven’t been bought off, you could commission a Third Part to the story. It could investigate why taxpayers are paying for drugs whose side effects data are being actively suppressed. How’s that for an idea? You know where to send the royalty cheque.

Correction to Fruit Fix Post

By | Conflicts of Interest, Sugar | 3 Comments

I’m nothing if not responsive to reader requests. Richard Andersen has written to express some concerns about my recent post on Uncle Toby’s Fruit Fix bar. Richard is General Counsel (a lawyer) for Nestle Australia Ltd and he says that Nestle is worried that you might have misunderstood some things in my post. So in the interests of clarity and fairness, in this post, I’ll go through each of Nestle’s concerns and correct the record.

Righto, off we go – Nestle says that I “represent[ed] … that the Fruit Fix Strawberry variant contains only strawberries … The front of pack clearly describes the product as ‘… apple, strawberry and grape snack’, which you have failed to mention in your post.

Well true enuff Richard, you’ve got me there mate. I didn’t recite the front label of the pack. I just went ahead and referred to the product by the name Uncle Toby’s used to describe it on their site (I didn’t actually buy a packet of the stuff!). So for the record folks, Fruit Fix Strawberry is an apple, strawberry and grape snack. It does not under any circumstances contain just strawberries, so don’t go thinking it does.

Richard then says that Nestle is concerned that comparing the sugar content of a strawberry to a fruit fix is misleading because Fruit Fix also contains apples and grapes. I don’t want anyone being mislead so here is the full comparison (including apples and grapes – SFF is Strawberry Fruit Fix):

Protein: Strawberry 1% Apple 0% Grape 1% SFF 1.3%

Fat: Strawberry 0% Apple 0% Grape 0% SFF .5%

Sugar: Strawberry 4.6% Apple 10.4% Grape 15.5% SFF 72.7%

Fibre: Strawberry 2% Apple 2.4% Grape .9% SFF 7.3%

The highest sugar concentration is 15.5% which is still a long way from 72.7% so I’m not sure what point Nestle is trying to make. Even if Strawberry Fruit Fix contained nothing but grapes, you’d still need to eat almost half a kilo of them to get as much sugar as 100g of Fruit Fix, but there you go, full disclosure.

Next Nestle was concerned that I “… make an inference that additional sugar has been added to the product … The product uses fruit puree and juice, which are inherently high in natural fruit sugars”.Notice how they underlined the word natural, I think it must be a magic word. Lawyers always underline magic lawyer words.

I can’t see where I have suggested that sugar is ‘added’ in the original post. But just in case anyone is confused, I unequivocally state that I don’t think any ‘additional sugar has been added to the product. There’d be barely any room for anything else if they did, given all the sugar that’s already there.

No, I’m happy to accept Nestle’s word that the sugar in Fruit Fix comes entirely from fruit. Nestle seems to think that a molecule of sugar that was in some way associated with a piece of fruit in a prior life is an entirely different kettle of fish than one which found its genesis in a piece of sugar cane (like grapes, sugar cane is about 15% sugar in its natural state). I think this must be some sort of grass-ism (sugar cane is a grass).Nestle appear to believe that fructose molecules from fruit come from a better neighbourhood than those from grass. Apparently once being part of a piece fruit earns them the special label ‘natural’ as opposed to those (I guess) unnatural ones which were once part of a piece of sugar cane.

Nestle also takes exception to me suggesting that they are telling lies by emblazoning their product with ‘1 Serve of Fruit’ and advertising the product as a healthy and nutritious snack. They point out that unlike me, Nestle have carefully ensured they know the legal definition of the word ‘fruit’.

Silly old me. You see when someone says ‘1 Serve of Fruit’, I think of an apple or maybe a banana. But that’s where I’ve gone wrong according to Nestle. No, what I should be doing is reaching for my handy copy of The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating where I will discover (once I drill down to the fine print) that fruit juice and fruit puree are also considered to fit the definition of ‘fruit’. Since Fruit Fix is made from both of those ingredients, it is therefore ‘fruit’.

So when you define the words just the right way, Nestle is telling God’s honest. Personally I think it would be more honest to emblazon the box with ‘Five to Sixteen equivalent serves of sugars that were once part of a piece of fruit’ but I can see how the Nestle marketing people might not go for that.

Unfortunately Nestle didn’t give me their definition of ‘healthy and nutritious’ so I’ll just have to rely on common sense for that one. I take the phrase to mean the food will promote good health (or at least not bad health). And this is where Nestle and I will have to disagree on the ‘truth’. Nestle maintains that a food which is almost three quarters sugar (and the majority of that, fructose) promotes good health. But there over 3,000 published studies which say exactly the opposite.

The latest one (published just last month in the Journal of Clinical Investigation) reported on a study at the University of California where 32 overweight and obese people were persuaded to try a 10 week diet which was either 25 percent fructose or 25 percent glucose. Fructose and glucose are the two sugars that bind together to make table sugar. So ‘sugar’ is half fructose and half glucose (yes, even when it comes from fruit rather than cane).

The people on the fructose diet ended up with increased (1.5kg) abdominal fat, higher triglyceride levels (which leads to heart disease) and 20 percent higher insulin resistance (which leads to Type II Diabetes) after just 10 weeks! None of this happened to the group on glucose.

The University of California research is just the latest in a long line of studies which say the same thing. Sugar (or at least the fructose half or it) is highly dangerous to humans. And there is no shortage of research which shows that fat in the blood (the higher triglyceride levels) from fructose leads to obesity, heart disease and type II diabetes.

The ‘sugar’ in the Fruit Fix is likely to contain significantly more fructose than table sugar, coming as it does from condensed fruit juices. So Nestle are telling parents that it’s good to feed their kids something which consists of large amount of a substance which has been proven to cause obesity, heart disease and diabetes (to name a few of the problems). That does not fit my definition of ‘healthy and nutritious’, so in that sense I believe Nestle is lying when it says that Fruit Fix is a ‘healthy and nutritious’ alternative to fruit.

I guess to lie you must know that what you’re saying is not true. And I have assumed that Nestle would be aware of the research on fructose. I do sincerely hope that their defence (as one of our biggest food suppliers) is not that they weren’t aware of the dangers of sugar.

It’s a free country. Nestle has just as much right to sell high sugar, fruit flavoured confectionary as the next guy (actually a Mars Bar, for example, has considerably less sugar – ‘just’ 55.3%). What they should not do is tell us that it is a healthy and nutritious snack while they’re at it. And the Heart Foundation shouldn’t be aiding and abetting this deceit by stamping the product with its Tick of approval.

Why we need to know who is paying the bills

By | Conflicts of Interest, Vegetable Oils | One Comment

In October 2013, ABC’s science program, Catalyst ran a two part series attacking the status quo on heart disease causes and treatments.  The show has been set upon from many quarters for failing to disclose conflicts of interest in those it relied upon to prosecute the case.  But even a little bit of digging quickly reveals those weren’t the only conflicts of interest that weren’t disclosed.

Catalyst interviewed people who had clear conflicts of interest.  Like many others, Professor Justin Coleman from the School of Medicine at Griffith University points out that Dr Jonny Bowden, a nutritionist and scathing critic of the animal-fat-causes-heart-disease hypothesis, also sells supplements.  The cardiologist, Dr Stephen Sinatra also does a pretty extensive line in supplements.  And Dr Michael Eades, general practitioner and diet book author is also peddling a full suite of stuff in bottles.

Undisclosed conflicts of interest infest the field of nutrition like biblical vermin and Professor Coleman was right to point them out.  Catalyst should have made it clear that the people they were interviewing had other interests which any reasonable person would regard as a potential source of conflict.

This does not mean they should not have been interviewed or that what they were saying was wrong; just that the conflict should have been disclosed so the viewer could appropriately weigh what was being said.

Unfortunately, the critics apparently didn’t notice that Bowden, Sinatra and Eades weren’t the only people with undisclosed conflicts in the Catalyst programs.   Associate Professor David Sullivan defended the incessant drive to lower cholesterol (and the use of statins to do it).  He even went so far as to suggest that it’s possible that patients talk themselves into having side effects from taking statin drugs.

What Catalyst didn’t disclose was that Dr Sullivan has been a “Member of several advisory panels within the pharmaceutical industry including Pfizer Australia, AstraZenica, Merck Sharp and Dohme, Schering Plough, Sanofi Aventis etc.”  Once again, this does not mean that his opinion of the evidence shouldn’t have been broadcast, just that the viewer should have been informed of the potential conflict.

Then of course there was the opinion of the National Heart Foundation.  Once again there was no disclosure that it receives $3m a year from the processed food industry (Tick Program), has an undisclosed arrangement with the margarine industry (Mums United) and has its conference sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry.

And the trail of non-disclosure didn’t end there.  Even after the shows aired, the commentary was equally infested.

On Monday the ABC’s Health Report interviewed Dr Peter Clifton about the Catalyst shows.  Dr Clifton was highly critical of what Catalyst had to say.  But the interviewer failed to inform the listener that Dr Clifton currently appears in an advertorial for MeadowLea margarine, is a member of Unilver’s (maker of Flora margarine) Advisory Panel and has recently completed research on the ‘benefits’ of margarine funded by Unilever.

Had this been disclosed, the listener would have been much better able to judge the veracity of statements like “if you swap saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat you might [my emphasis] get a 15% or so lowering of events” made by Dr Clifton during the interview.

Full disclosure of conflicts is a critical component of commentary in a field where billions in processed food and drug industry profits are at stake.  So yes, Catalyst should have mentioned that some of those critiquing the status quo had vitamins and books to sell, but it was even more important that Catalyst and Health Report tell us about the drug and processed food industry conflicts affecting those on the defence team.

There is no excuse for failing to disclose conflicts – any conflicts.  But flogging vitamins (however distasteful the practice) is a whole different level of conflict to consulting to the industries being criticised.  This is even more important when academic voices of authority are presented as independent reviewers (as was the case in the Health Report).  When that happens it is vital that their industry links (past and present) be announced alongside their glowing academic credentials.

Disclosure: I have written books about sugar, vitamin supplements and seed oils and if you buy them I will make some money, but I’ll tell you what they say for free: Don’t eat sugar or seed oils and don’t waste your money on supplements – there, I’ve just saved you a pile of cash. The fact that I am an author of relevant books and a lawyer is always disclosed in every interview I give.

Is the Heart Foundation’s advice killing us?

By | Big Fat Lies, Conflicts of Interest, Sugar, Vegetable Oils | 13 Comments

This week the authors of a major ongoing assessment of our health released their 12 year update. It’s a sobering document. We are all getting fatter and very much sicker at an alarming rate. But the really disturbing thing is that the Australian Heart Foundation’s advice is making things worse not better.

The AusDiab (Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle) study has been monitoring the health of a random selection of 11,000 Australian adults since 2000. The results of the 12 year follow-up were published this week.

The update shows that the number of us with Type II Diabetes has increased by 41%; that obesity has increased by 22%; that almost half of us now have chronically high blood pressure (this is despite a 30% increase in the use of medication to control it); and that the average 25 year old gained 7 kg on the scales and 7 cm round the waist; all in just over a decade.

During all of the period of the study (and for many years before that), the Heart Foundation has campaigned for changes to our food supply that they say would combat exactly those problems. They wanted the saturated animal fats removed from our food and replaced with seed oils (described on the label as ‘vegetable oil’, ‘canola oil’, ‘sunflower oil’, ‘safflower oil’, ‘soy oil’, ‘rice bran oil’ or ‘grapeseed oil’). And they have had considerable success. All fast food outlets now fry in seed oils. There are no products on the supermarket shelves which use animal fat. And in every food category there is at least one major brand that has been certified by the Foundation (with a Tick) as being low in saturated fats.

They have won the war on animal fat and ensured that it has been almost completely replaced by oils extracted from seeds. There is just one remaining bastion of saturated fat, butter. But don’t worry, the Foundation has a plan there too, eat more margarine. They reckon that once you overcome the taste of margarine you’ll soon be enjoying the “great benefit” of more “omega 6.” Omega 6 fats are a significant component of seed oils (vegetable oils) but are very rare everywhere else in nature. The only problem is that research is telling us that they the Heart Foundation has gotten it very, very wrong on these fats.

One of the key pieces of research they rely on for the supposed benefits of margarine (and seed oils in general) has recently been reanalysed. This new analysis has turned our understanding of the heart health benefits of margarine (and in particular the omega-6 fats which are a primary ingredient) upside down. The researchers were able to recover lost data about the exact fats fed to the volunteers in the original Study and then apply modern statistical techniques to that data.

What they found was truly disturbing. Not only was there no benefit to the people substituting margarine for butter, doing so significantly increased the risk of death from heart disease (by 70%) because of the huge increase in omega-6 fat consumption in the margarine chomping group.

The margarines used in that trial have similar levels of omega-6 fats to those (and just about everything else) being promoted by the Heart Foundation for the last three decades. Based on this research, the Foundation is actively encouraging people to consume something that almost doubles the risk of death from heart disease. Let me say that again just so it’s clear. The research says that following the Heart Foundation’s advice almost doubles your risk of death from heart disease.

Extraordinary though that is, it is not the worst of it. These are also exactly the same fats that other research has repeatedly shown to double our risk of breast cancer. And I’m not just talking about rat studies here (although there are more than enough of them). I’m talking about at least 7 major human population studies and 2 long term controlled trials (human again) which all come to exactly the same conclusion. The more omega-6 fat (found primarily in vegetable oil) you consume the more likely you are to suffer from breast cancer.

Worse than that, the rat studies are showing up something that (thankfully) no-one dare try on humans. When you feed pregnant mothers this stuff, their female pups have double the rate of breast cancer – even though they don’t consume any vegetable oils after birth.

This makes the heart Foundation’s chosen marketing vehicle especially horrific. You see, rather than simply run an ad telling us to eat margarine, they’ve decided to create a social media storm with the express purpose of getting mums to consume the exact substance that the research resoundingly shows doubles the rate of breast cancer and nearly doubles their risk of death from heart disease. And if the rat studies are right, those mums (trying to do the very best for their families) may be making very dangerous choices for their unborn daughters.

As if this were not bad enough, the Foundation continues to persist with a bizarre stance on the question of sugar. Last Thursday, the ABC’s venerable science program, Catalyst ran a special feature on the dangers of sugar. It detailed the, now well established, evidence that sugar is not only responsible for the obesity epidemic but is also strongly implicated in a long line of chronic disease including Type II Diabetes and Heart Disease.

Part of the program examined the very high levels of sugar embedded in foods which bear the Australian Heart Foundation’s tick of approval. Professor Michael Cowley, a physiologist and obesity researcher from Monash University expressed surprise that the Heart Foundation would endorse breakfast cereals (for example) that were almost a third sugar. In response, the Heart Foundation said that they ignore the sugar content of foods because (despite abundant evidence to the contrary) they believe it doesn’t make us fat or give us diabetes or heart disease.

The Australian Heart Foundation has spent the last 54 years working to gain our trust as an adviser. Our trust is something you can’t buy, but the processed food industry has found a way to rent the Heart Foundation’s healthy halo. It’s called the Tick Program. Processed foods can gain endorsement from the Heart Foundation by doing what they were going to do anyway. They wanted to use seed oils instead of animal fats because they are loads cheaper. Tick. They wanted to use tons of sugar because food with sugar sells better than food without. Tick.

The only problem is that, through the Tick Program, the Heart Foundation now finds itself in the position of having endorsed hundreds of products that the science says are very dangerous to our health. And it receives a nice chunk of change from the program every year ($2.9m in 2011).

That, girls and boys, is what we lawyers call a conflict of interest. When doctors experience a conflict of interest (say by accepting gifts from pharmaceutical companies), the regulators tighten the rules and (no matter how much it hurts the doctors) puts the brakes on the gravy train.

The same thing happens in just about any profession we depend upon for expert knowledge. We have to be able to trust people we pay to know more than us about a specialist subject. And no matter how morally astute they believe they are, we cannot allow them be led into temptation by conflicts of interest. If we do, we can never be sure if they are giving us advice based on the best evidence or on their own financial interest.

There are now very persuasive reasons to worry about the Heart Foundation’s advice that we should consume seed oils (vegetable oils). And there is just as compelling evidence that ignoring sugar is taking a daily toll on the health of all Australians.

I know it’s embarrassing that the Heart Foundation got it wrong on omega-6 fats and sugar. But they need to suck it up and change their position. Because it is much better to admit being wrong and do something about it than let another 40 women contract breast cancer or another 270 people contract Type II diabetes (and that’s just the toll today – the same toll will be exacted tomorrow and the day after that too).

We don’t need the guardians of our health defending the indefensible. We need them, well, guarding our health without fear or favour (especially without favour). This is not about pride. It’s about doing the right thing and stopping the appallingly dangerous advice – now.

While you wait for the Heart Foundation to do the right thing, here is some simple, free, advice for anyone wishing to avoid heart disease, cancer and Type II Diabetes:

  1. Do not eat any processed food (food in a packet) which has a Heart Foundation Tick – it is more than likely full of sugar or seed oils or both
  2. Do not eat anything that has been deep fried unless you know it was done in olive oil, coconut oil, macadamia nut oil or animal fat.
  3. Avoid any other processed food that contains seed oil.
  4. Avoid any other processed food that contains more than 3g per 100g of added sugar

Warning: following this advice may cause you to live to a very old age, so make sure you’ve got some superannuation

A day late and a dollar short? – Australia’s peak health bodies decide sugar is unhealthy (but only when added to fizzy water).

By | Conflicts of Interest, Sugar | 20 Comments

The week before last the Heart Foundation, Cancer Council and Diabetes Australia declared war on sugar. But before you break out the party poppers you should know that it wasn’t so much an all-out assault as a slap with a wet tram ticket. And the Dietitians Association couldn’t even be bothered getting out the tram ticket, moist or otherwise.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see such august bodies uniting behind an anti-sugar campaign. It’s just a pity the message is so riddled with caveats, exceptions and contradictions as to render it almost completely ineffective. Or was that the point?

The campaigning trio called for action on sugary drinks by “governments, schools and non-government organisations such as sports centres.”

Kellie-Ann Jolly, acting CEO of the Heart Foundation urged the Federal Government to “implement restrictions to reduce children’s exposure to marketing of sugary drinks.” She went on to suggest that State governments should also limit the sale of sugary drinks in schools and sporting grounds.

The CEO of Diabetes Australia, Greg Johnson, wanted even more direct action, calling for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.  The call to action was because these drinks are “associated with a range of serious health issues including weight gain and obesity, which in turn are risk factors for diabetes, cardiovascular (heart) disease and cancer.”

The sugar in soft drinks must be magic. You see when it’s mixed with water it apparently makes you fat and gives you diabetes, heart disease and cancer. But when the very same sugar constitutes 72% of a children’s lunch box snack it is so healthful that it deserves a great big Heart Foundation Tick of approval. And when it makes up almost a third of Uncle Toby’s Oat Gourmet Selections or Kellogg’s Just Right breakfast cereal it gets a tick as well.

But the real sign of its magicness is that it is not always dangerous even when the only other significant ingredient is still just water. Fruit Juice is sugar and water but that is not on the radar of the newly minted crusaders against sugary drinks. Apparently sugar molecules that were once part of a piece of fruit are not evil but those that were once part of a piece of sugar cane (despite being chemically identical) are deserving of taxation and prohibition.

Soft drink is an easy target. No-one is suffering under the impression that a can of Pepsi is health food and not even the Beverage Association at its most brazen would attempt to convince us that it is.

Confected rage on the part of the magnificent three is token (at best) for as long as they continue to ignore (or endorse, in the Heart Foundation’s case) the vast majority of sugar we are sold under the label ‘health food’.
Sugar is sugar. It’s just as dangerous when it’s the primary ingredient in a Heart Foundation approved children’s snack as it is when it’s sloshing around in a bottle of Coke. The Heart Foundation in particular robs this campaign of any shred of credibility for as long as it accepts payment from the processed food industry to endorse their sugar filled ‘health’ food.

The evidence supporting the campaign has been available to these organisations since at least 2007. Despite this, the Heart Foundation in particular has publicly and actively denied that sugar presented any health problem at all. Indeed as recently as 2011 they said“based on the current level of evidence, sugar is not directly linked to [heart disease], diabetes, or obesity.” That’s right, the exact opposite of what they now say about the sugar in soft drinks.

They must have found their library card because now it appears they’ve finally caught up with decades of research and mustered the gumption to acknowledge (some of) that evidence – albeit in half-hearted and non-revenue-endangering fashion.

The research on dietary sugar intake is just as damning as the evidence that has now convinced them to act on soft drink. Sugar doesn’t suddenly become dangerous when combined with water and bubbles. It’s dangerous all the time.
How many people million more people need to suffer from the lifelong debilitation (of Type II Diabetes) caused by the sugar added to everything we eat before Diabetes Australia is prepared to accept that evidence. How many more deaths from Heart Disease need to occur before the Heart Foundation is prepared to bite the corporate hand that feeds it?

Until those who are supposed to care, stand up and acknowledge the obvious, the suffering will continue. Until the Heart Foundation are prepared to say no to corporate sponsorship and demand action on all sugar, their gormless flailing at the easy targets will render them less and less relevant. In this age of profit driven, processed food we need real, independent advocates not corporate flunkies.

Image courtesy of Paul / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Australian Diabetes Council needs to clean up its act.

By | Conflicts of Interest, Sugar | 15 Comments

It’s Diabetes Awareness Week.  But the Australian Diabetes Council continues to advocate a solution that the science shows will make the disease worse rather than better.  Is their position mere negligent incompetence or is there something more sinister afoot?  Either way it is ordinary people who will pay the price.

Type II Diabetes (90 per cent of all diabetes is Type II) is a disease of carbohydrate metabolism.  Sufferers can no longer properly convert the carbohydrates they consume into energy.  The result is that their blood glucose level is permanently too high.

A permanently high blood glucose level leads to damage to the fine capillaries of the eyes and kidneys as well as the blood vessels transporting food and oxygen to our lower limbs.  Uncontrolled Diabetes will eventually lead to blindness, kidney disease and lower limb amputation.

Every day in Australia nine limbs are amputated because of this disease. Worse than that, it affects more than twice as many people today as it did in the nineties.  And that number is likely to triple in next fifteen years.

You don’t need to be a scientist to figure out that if a person has trouble dealing with carbohydrates they should eat less carbohydrates.  After all that is exactly the approach taken with other similar problems.  For example people who can’t properly digest fats (because their gall bladder is compromised) are advised to eat a lot less fat.

And if that was your hunch you wouldn’t need to look too far for science to back you up.  In 2010 the Harvard School of Public Health published the results of its meta-analysis of the research on the relationship between sugar sweetened drinks and diabetes. They reviewed eight high quality studies which involved 310,819 participants and 15,043 cases of Type 2 diabetes. Each of the underlying studies was significant in its own right and all had been concluded between 2004 and 2010.

All but one of the studies revealed a strong (and significant) association between sugar and diabetes. Taken together they showed that consuming one or more soft drinks (or fruit drinks or vitamin waters) per day would increase your chance of contracting type 2 diabetes by 26 per cent.As convincing as this meta-analysis is, it just confirms what a very strong series of studies (on the link between soft drinks and diabetes) have been saying for the last decade, sugar consumption significantly increases the incidence of type II Diabetes.

Two decades ago (when there were half the number of sufferers there are today) reducing carbohydrates in general and sugar in particular was exactly the advice given.  But strangely the Australian Diabetes Council’s  (ADC) advice to Type II Diabetes sufferers today amounts to advocacy for increasing the amount of carbohydrate.

Yesterday, their Chief Research Officer Dr Alan Barclay told the Today program that Australians hoping to prevent the onset of this terrible disease should eat less fat, less salt and more fish.  He gave no advice about sugar either during that interview or in the similar one he also gave to Alan Jones.  Neither does a word about sugar appear in the detailed booklet on preventing diabetes published by the ADC yesterday.

The official position of the ADC on sugar is that it has nothing to do with Diabetes.  Indeed it “want[s] to end the myth that sugar causes diabetes.” It’s a position which is (strangely) almost identical to the one maintained by CSR Sugar and Nestle Australia.  The ADC instead recommends “that people with diabetes choose at least one serve of a low G.I. food at each meal and snack.”

Sugar is a moderate to low GI food and pure fructose (which is one half of sugar) is the lowest GI carbohydrate available.  It shouldn’t therefore come as much of a surprise that foods high in sugar feature heavily in lists of processed food awarded Low GI certifications.  One type of pure sugar (made by CSR) has even managed to have itself certified as being low GI.

Besides being ADC’s Chief Research Officer (and oft-quoted spokesperson), Alan Barclay has some other strings to his bow. He is also a director and vice-president of the Glycemic Index Foundation (GIF). GIF exists to dispense GI Symbols.

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.  They can leave the proclamation of healthiness on the label for as long as they continue to pay for the privilege with a percentage of their product sales.   Some currently certified foods include, Nestle Milo (46% sugar), a range of Nestle muesli bars (around 25% sugar), USANA Meal replacement shakes (around 27% sugar), CSR’s Low GI Sugar (100% sugar) and of course Danisco pure fructose (100% fructose).

When the ADC exonerates sugar and steers sufferers in the direction of Low-GI foods, they are driving demand for the services of GIF, and the products certified by them.  Doctor Barclay’s involvement in both organisations is a clear conflict of interest (which should, at the very least, be disclosed with every appearance he makes on behalf of the ADC).

The studies linking sugar and diabetes are large, well conducted and reliable yet they are ignored on both the ADC website and in Dr Barclay’s most recent public advice to those seeking to avoid diabetes.

People with type II Diabetes will heed the ADC’s advice.  They will seek out low fat foods (which are usually high in sugar).  They will ignore the sugar content of foods and they will look for foods which bear a Low-GI certification.  This will inevitably increase their sugar intake and the science says they will significantly increase their risks by doing so.

If this was about increasing the risk of your fingernails going green then I would say, so what.    But far more is at stake in this game.  Almost 300 Australians will contract an appalling, life destroying, disease today.  And they’ll be joined by another 300 tomorrow, and another 300 the next day. They will suffer every remaining day of their (foreshortened) life even though the science on how to avoid it has been clear for at least a decade.

I don’t pretend to know ADC’s motivations, but telling at-risk people that it is ok to eat sugar is an extraordinary abuse of a position of trust.  Real people are suffering because of the ADC’s incompetent advice. It needs to clean up its act and it needs to do it now.Type II Diabetes is not a game.

Image courtesy of pat138241 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Do we really want our Nutrition advice sponsored by the Food Industry?

By | Conflicts of Interest, Sugar, Vegetable Oils | 97 Comments

The Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) is just like a union for dietitians. And like all unions, its priority is to represent the interests of its members. So when it starts handing out advice on what to eat we should be cautious. We should be especially cautious when that advice is funded by some of Australia’s most powerful food companies.

In Australia there is nothing to prevent anybody declaring themselves to be a dietitian (or a nutritionist). The barrier to entry is the price of a stack of business cards.

Other professions have managed to protect themselves (and their customers) by requiring qualifications and the observation of professional standards. Some professions have even managed have the barriers enforced by law (because when a lawyer or a doctor stuffs up the results can be catastrophic).

One of the primary roles of the DAA is to perform this ‘professional’ function for dietitians. It has created a certification process which produces Accredited Practising Dietitians (APD). And it has successfully lobbied to ensure that Medicare and private health fund rebates are only payable for APD services. In short their message is, make sure your dietitian is an APD.

One of the main sources of work for APDs is referrals from doctors (often just after they diagnose you with pre-diabetes and advise you to adjust your lifestyle). The nature of the work is telling people what they should eat. So a food company would be mad not to help the DAA. And help they certainly do.

The DAA’s list of corporate sponsors reads like a who’s who of the Australian food industry. Kellogg’s, Nestle, Unilever (the maker of Street’s Ice Cream and Flora margarine to name a couple of its brands), Nutricia (baby formula makers), Jalna yoghurts and the Meat and Livestock Association all feature prominently on the list of corporate ‘partners’.

That corporate support is significant. The DAA’s annual report reveals that (in 2009) advertising and sponsorship ($686,249) was the third largest source (after membership dues, $1.5m and seminar fees $833k) of revenue for the association. If the money from the food industry weren’t there, it’s likely each of the 4,100 members of the DAA would be facing considerably higher fees.

The DAA’s partners help with much more than mere cash. For example, Kellogg’s is a big supporter of the DAA’s (or is it the other way round?) National Breakfast Week, a campaign to ensure we eat breakfast (guess what features prominently). Kellogg’s also helps run the DAA Media Program, which “seeks to provide accurate nutrition and health information to the Media.”

The DAA’s policy on accepting sponsorship is that it “will not be influenced in any statements, positions or opinions by its commercial agreements.” And we would expect no less, but the same policy adds a somewhat cynical twist by saying that that DAA will take on sponsorship only where the “benefits for DAA outweigh any assessed risks.”

The fructose half of sugar is a dangerous (and addictive) addition to our diet that helps to sell many of the products made by the DAA’s corporate supporters. So what is the DAA’s position on sugar?

In May this year, a DAA press release trumpeted “Sweet truths: Eating sugar may not make you fat.” The release reported on a ‘study’ presented to DAA’s annual conference by DAA spokesperson, Dr Alan Barclay.

Dr Barclay reported that “consumption of fructose has decreased by nearly 20 per cent in Australia since the early 1970s, while overweight and obesity has doubled.” He went on to say “Much to everyone’s surprise, it looks as if, unlike in the US, sugar is not the culprit here …”

What the DAA’s press release did not say was that Dr Barclay is employed by Glycemic Index Ltd, an outfit that collects a royalty on CSR sugar sales. The DAA also neglected to mention that the sugar consumption figures presented by Dr Barclay stand in stark contrast to similar numbers maintained by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (a government department). ABARE seems to think that Australian domestic sugar consumption has more than doubled since the mid-eighties.

I suspect Dr Barclay would say his employer’s relationship with CSR doesn’t influence his view of the science about sugar. And I’m sure the DAA would say the same about all of its sponsors. But I prefer messages about the safety of sugar not to be sponsored by the folks who make billions out of selling it.

Australians don’t like people in positions of trust accepting kickbacks. We constantly worry whether drug companies are trying to influence our doctors. We demand that lawyers refuse to act on both sides of a real estate purchase. And we even get our undies in a twist at the thought of our PM accepting a dodgy ute.

We trust the DAA (and our Medicare and health insurance premiums pay its APD’s) to tell us what to eat. In that context, accepting significant payments from the food industry is a flagrant conflict of interest.

I don’t know whether the DAA just hasn’t caught up with its reading on sugar or whether the money is colouring its advice. But the existence of significant food industry sponsorship should cause all Australians to discount anything the DAA says about nutrition. And that is a disgraceful state of affairs for Australia’s “peak body of dietetic and nutrition professionals.”

Why we shouldn’t put up with sportspeople advertising sugar.

By | Conflicts of Interest, Sugar | 5 Comments

I’m not very good with subliminal advertising, but (apparently) eating sugar makes you look like Eamon Sullivan – which I guess would be good. Or perhaps it just makes you take your clothes off – not so good (in my case). Either way, the latest CSR sugar advertisement sends a pretty damn (‘scuse French) irresponsible message about sugar.

The purpose of the ad is to sell CSR sugar. And so I guess the reason they didn’t use a nude Matt Preston (for example) was that they wanted us to believe that eating CSR sugar would give us (or our significant other) abs like Eamon’s.

Maybe I’m just jumping to conclusions. Maybe Eamon always noods-it-up for a spot of baking (although I can’t say I noticed that when he won Masterchef). But there’s no shortage of research to tell us that eating sugar (in our birthday suit or fully clothed) is the single least effective way to get a washboard stomach.

And you don’t need to look too hard to find that science. Even CSR’s own website warns us “There is some evidence to suggest that [the fructose half of sugar] is handled differently in the body and may be associated with obesity and other health issues.”

Eamon must have missed the memo (that sugar makes you fat) because when asked about his role in the advertisement, he is quoted as responding “statistics showed that while obesity rates were rising, sugar consumption was falling.”

Really? What statistics would those be? The only ones I could find show exactly the opposite (a consumption increase of over 50 per cent since 1990). But that data is maintained by the Australian Government’s Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) – what would they know?

Eamon went on to say “the CSR sugar in the ad was in fact low-GI.” Well, yes (maybe), but all sugar is low(ish) GI. And the worst for making you fat and sick (pure fructose) is the lowest of the lot. In fact it is one of the lowest GI carbohydrates known to man.

That alone should make us suspicious of the use of the GI rating at all. GI Symbols lost any credibility when they started turning up on packets of pure sugar. They are a symbol of nothing more than the food manufacturer’s willingness to give up profit (they pay a percentage of sales for the right) in return for our gullibility.

CSR should know the GI Symbol is a spurious health claim and it knows its product is dangerous (to human health). It admits as much on the website. This is why it doesn’t make any claims to the contrary in its ad (lawyers can be so annoyingly literal about these things). It just leaves it to us to use our imagination and imply benefits which are never actually claimed.

CSR’s candid admission as to the dangers of fructose is far more than any tobacco company ever managed (before they were forced to). We banned cigarette advertising at sporting events almost 20 years ago because we didn’t want our kids accepting an association between cigarettes and sport. For exactly the same reason we shouldn’t put up with CSR pushing its way under Eamon’s healthy halo.

Sugar will not make you look like Eamon. CSR knows it, (hopefully Eamon knows it) and you know it too. So let’s stop this farcical advertising before someone gets hurt.

Error: Please enter a valid email address

Error: Invalid email

Error: Please enter your first name

Error: Please enter your last name

Error: Please enter a username

Error: Please enter a password

Error: Please confirm your password

Error: Password and password confirmation do not match