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.

Does saturated fat really cause heart disease?

By | Big Fat Lies, Conflicts of Interest, Vegetable Oils | 9 Comments

We’re not eating enough margarine and it really is starting to bother people who make it. According to Dairy Australia’s 2009 report, butter (and butter-like substances) have steadily increased from 30 percent of the spread market in 2001 to 43 percent in 2009. And the outlook to 2012 is even rosier with expected growth of almost 10 percent.

I blame MasterChef (and its ilk). You never see the latest quasi-celebrity cracking open a nice tub of marg do you? No, its great dollops of butter all the way. Of course it could just be that we’re getting wary of how many chemists were involved in creating the stuff we spread on our bread.

Goodman Fielder (the maker of Meadow Lea) has obviously decided not to take our growing disdain for manufactured spreads lying down. In the last few weeks a commercial has been airing featuring a smart young fellow by the name of Andrew Wilson chatting to us about the evils of eating butter.

Andrew ought to know what he’s talking about. He’s a cardiologist with the Department of Medicine, St Vincent’s Hospital in Fitzroy, Melbourne. I know this because, not only does his mug appear regularly on the teev, he features on a website called Spread the Facts.

Andrew tells us that “as a cardiologist he understands what saturated fats can do to your child’s health,” and illustrates this with a graphic of a “child’s artery” filling with saturated fats from butter. He then goes on to suggest that we should switch to a margarine spread made with plant seeds (tight shot of plant seeds in doc’s hands), “because most contain at least 65% less saturated fat than butter.”

The website (and the ad) are bought to us by Goodman Fielder and both appear to be in some (nonspecific) way associated with the Australian Heart Foundation (if the constant use of their logo is anything to go by).

On my telly, whenever Andrew appears in an ad break, you can put money on the probability of an ad for Meadow Lea materialising an ad or two later in the break. The Meadow Lea ad features children gambolling in a field. Mother then enters and the voice-over points out that Meadow Lea is made from plant seeds (tight shot of mother’s hands holding plant seeds) which contains 65 percent less saturated fat than butter. Enough dots for you to join there?

All that authorititive advice (followed coincidentally by an ad for a product that fits the bill) should have any self-respecting parent hurtling towards the margarine section of the supermarket before Hermione and Jeremy’s arteries are irreversibly clogged.

The only problem with all of this is that the science doesn’t appear to match the advertising spin. A study to be published next month in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concludes that “there is no significant evidence that dietary saturated fat is associated with increased risk of [heart disease].” Huh? But didn’t Andrew show us pictures of children’s arteries being pumped full of saturated fat?

The study arrived at that conclusion after examining 21 previous studies of a total of 347,747 people. It was however supported by the National Dairy Council (who might like us to eat a little more butter).

Fortunately (for the suspiciously inclined), a comprehensive review (which has no dubious sources of funding) of the evidence was published in the British Medical Journal back in 2001.

The British review decided that despite decades of research (and thousands of people participating in randomized trials), there “is still only limited and inconclusive evidence” that the amount or type of fat you eat makes any difference to your chances of death by heart attack. Not exactly resounding support for the line being pushed by Andrew, the Heart Foundation and Goodman Fielder, now is it?

These results are quite a contrast to a review published by the American Heart Association (AHA) last August. That review summarised the available research on the relationship between sugar intake and cardiovascular health. It noted that “sugar intake appears to be associated with increased triglyceride levels, a known risk factor for coronary heart disease,” and concluded that the average American needed to dramatically reduce their sugar intake.

The AHA was so concerned they recommended that an adult male consume no more than 9 teaspoons (5 for women and 3 for kids) of added sugar a day (about the same as a can of soft drink or a large bowl of fruit muesli for the man). Even worse, alcohol had to be deducted from the allowance, so one full strength beer would reduce a man’s sugar quota to zero.

I can’t blame Goodman Fielder for having a go. They’re not a charity and they’ve got a product to sell in a market populated by mini-me MasterChefs. But why is a cardiologist fronting up and suggesting something that isn’t supported by the research? And why is the Heart Foundation in there helping them both out? Why aren’t the Australian Heart Foundation telling us what their American cousins know about sugar? Surely it’s not because no-one is paying them to – surely not?

Attack of the Chocolatier

By | Conflicts of Interest, Sugar | 171 Comments

On Sunday, ABC’s Ockham’s Razor program aired a piece by a chap called Chris Forbes- Ewan. Chris is a nutritionist who works for the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) in Tasmania. He has spent the last few years making high melting point chocolate for DSTO. This stuff allows Aussie troops to still enjoy a choccy even when sitting in the hot Arabian sun.

DSTO says they “work closely with industry … through a range of … mutually beneficial arrangements.” Interestingly they have been ‘working closely’ with Nestle on Chris’s project. DSTO explain “Nestlé’s transformation from a general food company into a health, nutrition and wellness company meant that they were more closely aligned to DSTO in the area of nutrition.

Nestle has been transformed into a health and wellness company? I must have missed the memo. I’m sure DSTO (and Chris) are not in any way influenced by ‘closely working’ with Nestle for years, but it would have been nice to disclose the relationship so we could make up our own mind.

It’s true I have no formal qualifications in nutrition. But apparently none are necessary, beyond being a human that eats. And I understand that to someone (like Chris) who has worked in this area for ‘more than two decades’ it could be a little confronting to deal with someone qualified by nothing more than a thirst for knowledge.

After reading 208 pages of summarised research in Sweet Poison, he decides the thing worthy of attack (beyond my credentials) is my claim that we now get almost 20% of our calories from fructose.

For the record the average Aussie consumes about 50 kg of sugar a year. On top of that, they gulp down approximately 10 kg of sugar in fruit juice concentrate (used to sweeten ‘healthy’ food like Nestle’s fruit fix), honey and fruit juice. The fructose half of this equates to 16.4 percent of the recommended adult male’s diet (2,000 Calories per day) or 18.2 percent of an adult female diet of 1,800 Calories. To me, that looks like ‘almost 20 percent’ and a lot more than the 6 percent Chris calculates.

But even if he were absolutely right, it wouldn’t change my argument one little bit. Unlike Chris (and coincidentally Big Sugar), I don’t believe (and there is no credible research to suggest) that there is any safe level of fructose consumption (beyond that which is contained in two pieces of fruit per day).

Even Chris concedes that “many Australians do eat excessive amounts of sugar, and would do themselves (and their waistlines) a favour by reducing sugar intake.” His real concern seems to be that people won’t voluntarily give up sugar, reducing his argument to: I know it’s bad but people won’t change, so let’s not worry about it.

His only other concern was about a human trial (of fructose feeding) I mentioned in the book. It had to be abandoned due to some of the participants suffering heart problems.

I mentioned the study to make the (I thought, rather amusing) point that humans have better lawyers than rats which is why (perhaps) there are less human studies on fructose. But Chris claims that I completely misinterpreted the study’s findings. He implies that the heart problems were no more attributable to fructose than to starch (the two diets used in the trial).

I didn’t do the study, so I have to rely on what the researchers themselves concluded. They say that even though the link between the fructose and the heart attacks could not be proven, the probability that it “was due to chance was was < .0005” (less than five hundredths of a percent).”

Sweet Poison is stuffed to the brim with examples from the (over 3,000) studies that show the damage being done by fructose, but Chris doesn’t have problems with any of the rest. This one (somewhat oblique) reference is the only one he questions.

He has however personally found 12 studies which show feeding people fructose has no effect or is beneficial (no less). He doesn’t cite (or describe) any of them, so we’ll just have to take his word on that. Perhaps next time Chris, you could give us some clues? Maybe even mention the name of the researchers? Ockham’s Razor is a science show after all.

Despite his newly discovered (and unnamed) studies, Chris finishes his piece by saying that “recent studies suggest that high fructose intake may increase the risk of conditions such as gout, kidney stones, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, and may also lead to blood lipid profiles associated with greater risk of heart disease.” Oh ok, so we agree then?

And that’s it. That’s all he had. The End.

I’ve put the evidence out there and the best a chocolatier-come-critic can come up with (after six months) is (incorrectly) suggesting I misinterpreted an abandoned study from 1984?

Sugar purveyors (including the DSTO’s partner, Nestle) have billions in revenue and resources coming out their ears. Sweet Poison cites endless studies and there are even more on my blog. But so far not one study has been cited which contradicts any of it.

If the science is wrong and fructose is harmless (as Chris starts to imply but then changes his mind), then surely it can’t be that hard to prove. Just cite some credible studies.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How necessary is lap-banding?

By | Conflicts of Interest, Sugar | 8 Comments

Imagine for a moment that there was a medical benefit to penis enlargement. I can’t imagine what it might be. But you can bet that if there was the slightest chance of one, Big Pharma would be working the PR angles overtime.

There would be submissions to parliamentary enquiries on the virtues of large members. There would be intense lobbying for bigification to be added to the medicare schedules. Universities would be endowed with grants for studies showing that despite the huge costs involved, the community as a whole would be better off.

Successful recipients of the procedure would make regular appearances on current affairs shows. And even the occasional celebrity might become a posterboy for his newly enlarged and much more healthy lifestyle.

Normally this kind of cosmetic surgery misses out on the PR windfall of there being a remote possibility of medical benefit. But there is one kind of beautification which has managed to land smack bang in the middle of the biggest medical concern we have (no not hair regrowth, the other one).

Lap-band surgery promises to blow away years of eating the wrong thing with a simple slice of the scalpel (and large quantities of liquid food). But it’s not cosmetic surgery, oh no, this is about reversing Type II Diabetes.

You need look no further than our own Monash University’s Centre for Obesity Research and Education (CORE) for proof that lap-band surgery is a cost effective way to manage diabetes. I’m sure that the fact that CORE’s ‘principal sponsor’ is Allergan has very little to do with their decision to focus their efforts on the study of lap-band surgery.

Allergan is the little pharmaceutical company that gave the world Botox. It followed up that gift to mankind with the invention of the very first (and still the most popular) device for bariatric surgery. Years of marketing Botox for medical uses (really? It’s also used for cosmetic purposes? Well spank my bottom and call me Anna) has ensured that Allergan knows how to tread the cosmetic-surgery-that’s-healthy path with great skill.

CORE has been having a bit of success on the lobbying front. It submitted to the House of Reps inquiry into obesity that “the barriers to publicly funded access to this surgery need to be addressed as a matter of urgency”, (but forgot to mention that their principal sponsor was a maker of such devices). And voila out pops a key recommendation that governments need to work together to boost access to bariatric surgery.

One of the chaps who has run multiple studies for CORE is a GP by the name of Dr John Dixon. His latest study correctly discloses that he is affiliated with CORE and the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, but doesn’t mention that he is also a consultant to Allergan and “the charter member of the board” of, and has an ‘ownership interest in’ Bariatric Advantage.

The recipients of lap-band surgery are put on an Optifast diet before and after surgery. It’s not the surgery that makes them thin, it’s being forced to stick to a very low calorie liquid diet. Optifast is one of those shake diets you can buy at the local pharmacy, but there is a special high end version for those undergoing lap-band surgery.

Bariatric Advantage makes its money flogging optifast liquid diets (and various other bibs and bobs) to lap-band patients, so it’s logical that Dr Dixon might want to have an ‘ownership interest’ in its operations. The primary ingredient in Optifast shakes (besides powdered milk) is fructose, a substance so dangerous to diabetics (remember diabetes is the disease we are ‘curing’ here), that the American Diabetes Association has pronounced “the use of added fructose as a sweetening agent in the diabetic diet is not recommended.”

CORE expects that 14,000 lap-band procedures will be done this year in Australia. But don’t worry, since Nestle make Optifast, they can probably get their hands on the industrial quantities of fructose required for the construction of that many ‘diet shakes’. And Nestle have no problems selling fructose to our kids as health food, so I guess this isn’t much of a leap to push it to diabetics either.

Bariatric surgery is not a simple piece of cosmetic beautification. One in five patients will suffer complications (but don’t worry less than 1 in 100 dies). And all for what? An average of just one decade’s remission from Type II Diabetes (for up to 40% of patients – the rest miss out).

Are we really going to seriously consider publicly funding surgery based on a submission from an outfit funded by the maker of the surgical device? Are we to seriously consider ‘research’ run by a GP who is a paid consultant to that manufacturer? And what are we to make of his side business flogging fructose (on behalf of Nestle) to the recipients of these devices? Is this really how public health policy is put together in this country?

Here’s an idea. How about instead of leaving a publicly funded first aid kit at the bottom of the slippery slide, we give some thought to telling people about the dangers before they climb the ladder? How about instead of blindly accepting that people are obese because they’re lazy or gluttonous (or both), we pay some attention to the more than 3,000 studies which suggest we’re fat because of a dangerous toxin (fructose) in our diet? How about we look a little deeper than the shiny surface that Big Pharma and Big Sugar want us to see?

Also published in Crikey

Image courtesy of artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Heart Association: Cut Back On Sugar—Way Back

By | Conflicts of Interest, Sugar | 2 Comments

Break out the marching bands. Yesterday the Heart Association recommended that adult men should eat no more than 9 teaspoons of sugar a day (6 teaspoons for women). If that still sounds like a lot to you, you’re not up with the times. The Food Investigators (SBS) recommend 32 teaspoons and even Food Standards Australia says it’s ok for a man to gulp down just over 21 teaspoons every day.

Unfortunately, it’s the American Heart Association that has issued the new guideline. Here in the land of Oz, nothing’s changed. The AHA says that it made the change because:

High intake of added sugars is implicated in numerous poor health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

The AHA has clearly sniffed the wind and decided that a (policy) stitch in time saves nine (lawsuits). There are just too many lawyers in the US who would be more than happy to have a crack at helping a court understand disparities between public health advice and research evidence.

One current example is a class action commenced in January this year against Coke in the US. The claim alleges fraudulent statements in the marketing of Coke’s new range of Glaceau Vitamin Waters. Coke’s advertising suggests that its drinks variously reduce the risk of chronic disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, promote healthy joints, and support optimal immune function. Whereas science suggests that the 8 teaspoons of sugar in each bottle do exactly the opposite.

Meanwhile back in the dark ages, we here in Australia base all our public health advice on something called the Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults published in 2003 by the National Health and Medical Research Council. Both Nestle and the Australian Heart Foundation referred me to those guidelines when I questioned the endorsement of Fruit Fix as a healthy snack. And Diabetes Australia-NSW pointed me that way when I queried their involvement in the The Food Investigators show which told us we should eat those 32 teaspoons of sugar a day.

The Dietary Guidelines recommend that we get 15% to 20% of our calories from sugar. They base that recommendation on a 1994 meta-study which concluded that the only ill effects of sugar consumption were likely to be dental cavities. That study based its conclusions primarily on four studies done from 1972 to 1992. Oh and by the way, it was paid for by the American Beverage Association, an outfit not exactly known for its tolerance of anti-sugar messages.

Let me say that again, but slower. Australian recommendations on sugar consumption are based on a 15 year old report paid for by Big Sugar. And that report is in turn based on research which is thinking about applying for its old age pension. None of that would matter if just about every nutritionist in the nation didn’t base their advice on those antiquated guidelines. Or if Big Sugar didn’t use them as a perfect defense to their behaviour. Or if our own Heart Foundation and Diabetes organisations didn’t blindly accept them at face value.

The American Diabetes Association moved in 2006 and now the American Heart Association has gone the same way. Both now say sugar is bad news for their respective constituents. You clearly don’t have to hit the AHA or the ADA over the head with a lawyer. They understand that it’s better to make sure your policy guidance matches what the research says now (rather than what it said in 1972). But the equivalent organisations in Australia are quite happy to keep trotting out Big Sugar’s company line.

It’s time for those responsible for the health of Australians to wake up and smell the (independent) research. In Australia, actions for chronic disease are (so far) limited to tobacco and asbestos poisoning.But it won’t be long before sugar is added to the list. The people we trust for health advice need to move before any more of us are suckered into a life of debilitating disease based on advice which is over three decades old (and paid for by the sugar industry).

Note: Yesterday, I contacted the Australian Heart Foundation and asked if they had any comment on the American Heart Association announcement. They responded with the sound of silence.


Also published in Crikey

Are you getting enough sugar?

By | Conflicts of Interest, Sugar | 7 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also published in Crikey