Where’s the F word … err fructose … in healthy children debate?

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Governments are often criticised for not putting in the hard yards when it comes to forward planning. They start building desalination plants after we run out of water. They start adding lanes to freeways after traffic is at a standstill. They build more power stations after the black-outs start.

But there’s no way you could accuse Paul Lucas (Queensland’s Health Minister) of such poor planning. He’s already building the infrastructure necessary to treat the victims of childhood obesity in 2014.

Back in 2007, the Queensland government implemented a series of initiatives aimed at reducing childhood obesity by 33 % by 2020. Smart Choices would force children to eat healthy food at school and Smart Moves would force children to exercise for at least half an hour during school time.

The policies are very similar to programs for healthy eating and exercise implemented as part of the UK’s Healthy Schools initiative. Those programs were kicked off in 1999 because surveys in 1995 had shown that a quarter of British kids were overweight or obese. In Queensland we took until 2006 to reach that particular milestone, hence the delay (I guess).

The British programs have met with resounding failure. Now almost a third of English kids are overweight or obese. And the prediction is that the numbers will be truly diabolical by 2050.

The presumption underlying the Smart Moves program is that sport prevents obesity in children. But an extended study of the UK program to be released this week suggests that is likely to be nonsense.

After a decade long study of children in the UK, the researchers have concluded that increased physical activity is unlikely to reduce a child’s weight. For years nutritionists have told us that kids are fat because they don’t exercise. But the study concludes that the opposite is in fact the case.

Overweight children eat more and exercise less because they are fat, not the other way round. When you think about it that has a certain logic to it. We are perfectly happy to accept that when children grow taller they demand more food, so why wouldn’t we accept that when they grow fatter they do the same.

We are also happy to accept that a pregnant woman puts on weight (and eats more) because she’s preggers. And just like a pregnant woman, an overweight child, exercises less because it is much harder to move when you are carrying extra weight. Less exercise is a side effect of weight gain not the cause of it.

Growing taller happens because of the work of growth hormones in the child’s body. Pregnancy happens … well, you know why … and also involves hormones. Growing fatter also happens because of the work of hormones.

Appetite control hormones precisely regulate the amount of additional weight gained, but sugar (or more precisely, the fructose half sugar) has been shown to disrupt the operations of those hormones. But fructose limitation is not on the menu for the Queensland government any more than it is in Ole Blighty.

Just like its British equivalent, Queensland’s healthy eating in schools program focuses on the anti-fat dogma trotted out by nutritionists for the last five decades. It has little concern for sugar unless it has been added. Soft drinks are coded ‘red’ because of the added sugar and can only be consumed twice per term (maximum). But juices with identical (or higher) sugar content are coded ‘amber’ and can be consumed every day.

I asked Paul Lucas about that contradiction in July last year. In my request I supplied him with references to many of the recent studies on the damage done by the fructose half of sugar. Paul finally got around to having a minion reply to me in the New Year.

The minion agreed that diets high in added (his emphasis) fructose were indeed undesirable because fructose promotes weight increase, chronic disease and increased circulating fatty acids. But he points out that fruit juice is high in naturally occurring (my emphasis) fructose not added fructose. As such there is no need to change the policy.

Ah, I see. So somehow the very act of adding fructose to water rather than removing the fruit from the fructose and water (juice) must magically transmogrify the fructose from a healthy substance to a dangerous substance. I’m glad that’s been cleared up.

As much as Paul is having his minion trot out the party line, it would seem that he has one eye on the ‘success’ of the British programs. On Sunday he announced that in 2014 Queensland will have its very own childhood obesity treatment clinic. When Smart Moves and Smart Choices produce the inevitable increase in childhood obesity, Paul will be there ready with the ambulance parked at the bottom of the chronic disease cliff face.

How many children need to be sacrificed to nutritional dogma before the science on fructose crosses into the political domain. Do all our kids need to be overweight or suffering from diabetes before we acknowledge that the ‘fat makes you fat and exercise makes you thin’ advice is just plain wrong? Or can we start doing something about it now? Maybe, just maybe, if we did, by the time that brand new clinic is open for business, they won’t be needed.

Also published in Crikey

Coke offers me a job (sort of)

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I’ve got some very exciting news to share. I’ve been offered a job! And it’s not just any job, its diplomatic post.

I didn’t have to schmooze Kevin or even be a ‘successful’ liberal ex-politician. All I had to do was ‘enjoy talking to others’ and love ‘sharing thoughts and information on how they can make a positive difference to the environment, the community and the people around them.’

Obviously my interest in sharing information preceded me (who knew so many powerful people read Crikey?). Because when the diplomatic corps needed help with their environmental community sharing messaging, my name was clearly at the top of the list.

They’ve even noticed (I’m not sure how) that I am renown for being the ‘guardian of the household’ and the maker ‘of family decisions’, so kudos to them and their thorough information gathering. Although to be honest it would have been good not to mention that so publicly. It has gotten me in a bit of bother with her indoors.

My personally engraved invitation arrived just yesterday (copy below). Now some (clearly envious) folks have suggested that it might have been sent to more than just me. But that can’t be true, it is addressed to me personally (it says ‘Dear David’). They are clearly aware of my love of sharing information. And they practically plead with me – signing off with “we would love to hear from you.”

No, naysayers be buggered. Coca-Cola has clearly turned over a new leaf. They have decided to be an environmental saviour of some description (with a diplomatic corps – it’s an ambassador they want). And they need an excellent communicator (oh, say, like me) to help convince people how wrong they’ve been to think of them as just a purveyor of sugar (and water).

Oh there’s some i dotting and t crossing to do, but I’ve filled out their little online form. So I’ll no doubt be taking up my new posting any day now. I wonder if it will be based in the Maldives? I hear they are nice (although prone to flooding due to global warming now – hey maybe they’ll send me straight to Copenhagen).

I can’t wait to start sharing information on how other people can make a positive difference. Maybe I should start now. Ahem – People (that’s you) can make a positive difference to the environment by buying sugar sweetened beverages. The drinks will make you fat, which means not all the sugar is turned into energy. Less energy, less CO2 out of your mouth. So drink up, the planet will thank you!

How am I doing? I reckon I’m made for this corporate spin ambassadoring lark.

Also published in Crikey.

Just say No to Sugary Cereal.

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We know kids shouldn’t eat high sugar cereals. But actually implementing a ban is likely to defeat all but the most determined of parents. A very recent study out of Yale University in the US may give some hope to timid parents.

The researchers tried a tactic most parents would be reluctant to attempt. Instead of educating children, they just removed sugar-filled food as an option.

The researchers looked at a group of 89 kids (aged 5-12) and what they ate when they were away at summer camp. Half the group were offered only low-sugar cereals (the American equivalent of Weet-bix etc) and the other half were offered only high sugar cereals. Both groups had access to as much table sugar, strawberries and bananas and fruit juice as they wanted.

The Yale team wanted to know firstly if the kids offered low sugar cereals would protest and refuse breakfast. Perhaps surprisingly, 100 percent of the low-sugar group just ate what was on offer (1 percent of the high sugar group refused – obviously some aberrant child snuck in).

The interesting thing is that they ate alot less, in fact they ate half as much. The low-sugar group on average ate the recommended serving of the cereal (one cup). But the high sugar group ate on average two cups. The low sugar group compensated for less cereal by adding table sugar to their cereal and drinking more juice, but even when that was included in the calculations, they ate significantly less sugar than the kids munching on the high sugar cereal.

The researchers didn’t do it, but an interesting extension to this study would be to remove the table sugar and juice, but make sure there was plenty of cold milk to drink. I rather suspect the result would be even more impressive. My guess would be that the kids would once again just eat what was on offer, and perhaps eat less cereal and drink more milk, but their sugar consumption would be insignificant.

The researchers also asked the children to rate their breakfasts out of five (1 being the best and 5 being the worst). The high-sugar kids rated theirs 1.5 on average (no surprises there). They thought their breakfasts were just swell.

The low-sugar kids were of course, nowhere near as happy. Their average was 1.6. In other words, they had no problems with their brekkie’s either.

The interesting thing about this study is that it did what many parents find very difficult. It just removed the option. There was no attempt at moderation or education. The option was simply not there. The kids weren’t unhappy. And they didn’t starve. They just moved on with the new reality.

FYI: I will be giving two public lectures in Brisbane in the upcoming week. There’s more info on both at www.sweetpoison.com.au.

Should cardiologists be selling fructose?

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Conspiracy theorists love to believe that the moon landings were staged perhaps somewhere like the Universal back lot, that computer virus software is written by the anti-virus companies and that JFK was really assassinated by Kevin Rudd’s cat (or something like that). I don’t know why they bother with all the lateral thinking when real-life conspiracies abound.

Big Sugar makes many products that will cause heart disease. But unless you are wilfully ignorant, you’re unlikely to be suffering under the impression that a Coke and a Mars Bar is a healthy breakfast.

Recently, Nestle upped the ante when it started pushing Fruit Fix (a product that is 72% sugar), as a healthy alternative to fruit. It nudged it a bit further when it got the Heart Foundation to endorse it as health food. But we’re still not in conspiracy territory. That’s merely deceptive.

We cross the boundary into potential conspiracy candidate with Nestle’s Optifast shake diet. The primary ingredients of Optifast are skim milk powder and fructose.

Fructose is one half of table sugar. It is definitively associated with the causes of heart disease and this was starkly proven in some human trials conducted by the University of California earlier this year. The investigators divided 32 overweight men and women into two groups, and instructed each group to drink a sweetened beverage three times per day. One group’s drinks were sweetened with fructose and the other group were drinking glucose (the other half of sugar).

After just 10 weeks, the fructose group had experienced a major metabolic shift that did not occur with the glucose group. They had a significant worsening of blood glucose control and insulin sensitivity. Their LDL cholesterol and oxidised LDL readings increased dramatically. Liver synthesis of fat had increased by 75%. And visceral fat had increased by 14%. In short, they had been turned into heart attacks waiting to happen.

By definition, Optifast is sold to people who are overweight. So Nestle is selling them a “cure” to their condition, which significantly increases health risks across the board, but particularly for heart disease. Brand diversification? Yep. Wildly irresponsible? Certainly. Surprising? Not really, it is Nestle we’re talking about.

No, to be a true conspiracy, we need a hidden benefit to the purveyor. Sure, Nestle makes money out of Optifast but aside from that, how does it benefit from giving fat people heart attacks? Now if a cardiologist was flogging Optifast to weight-challenged folks, then we’d be talking genuine gold-plated conspiracy theory.

Well as it happens, in little ol’ Brisbane, cardiologists do dispense Optifast to overweight people. The Wesley Weight Management Clinic (WWMC) is owned by “a group of Cardiologists who are based at The Wesley Hospital”.

WWMC proudly proclaim that it “uses a nutritionally balanced meal replacement called Optifast 800”. The Optifast 800 range of shakes contains about 18g of fructose per serve. And WWMC advises people to consume five serves a day instead of their normal meals.

If a punter were to follow the program as laid out, they would be consuming about 90g of fructose per day. Or put another way, almost half of their energy intake would be coming from fructose. To get that much fructose from sugar, they would need to consume 43 teaspoons of sugar a day. Would you like some food with your sugar diet?

The University of California study fed its subjects 25% of their calories from fructose for just 10 weeks and produced truly frightening results. WWMC tells its paying customers to consume 45% of their calories from fructose for six months. They will lose weight. If you replaced everything you ate with a small chocolate milk five times a day, you’d lose weight, too. But what kind of damage are they doing at the metabolic level?

I’m not seriously suggesting that these cardiologists are setting out to create business for their day jobs. I never ascribe to conspiracy that which could be adequately explained by ignorance. I suspect it started out as a nice little earner. And it’s just unfortunate that it turns out that what they’re serving up is something the research says is the worst possible thing you could give to a heart-attack candidate.

I have, of course, pointed this out to WWMC, but it seems disinclined to change its ways. I expected a note telling me that, of course, it was reviewing its program in the light of the latest research and fructose would soon be off the menu. I didn’t get that. Instead, it said: “we believe that Optifast 800 is the most suitable product on the market and do not believe the fructose content would constitute a ‘high fructose diet’ implicated in the research.”

One wonders how high the fructose content would have to be before WWMC became worried about it. Ah well, I guess doctor always knows best.

Also published in Crikey

It aint over til the fat lady dies

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Dearest Australian Big Sugar, the days of uncritical acceptance of sugar as just-another-food are behind us. As you know, the science has made it clear for some time that it is a lethal and addictive element of the food supply.

Unfortunately, that knowledge appears to be filtering into the consumer domain. We, here in the United States, are now repeatedly fending off claims that we are causing all manner of damage. Even worse, the Feds are now talking about special taxes against us and otherwise interfering with our right to sell whatever we damn well like to whoever we damn well please.

We’ve learnt a thing or two about how to distract consumers worried about sugar. So here are some tried and true strategies you can use to ensure your customers remain docile and compliant.

Everything in Moderation – As market awareness about the danger develops, you should respond, that of course you are aware that excessive consumption of sugar is not good, but that foods such as yours should be consumed in moderation.

It’s a tactic that worked exceedingly well for Big Tobacco for many years. In the 1960’s they successfully put a message about that it was fine to smoke in moderation (can you believe they got away with that?!). Eventually this message runs out of steam, but Big Tobacco got a solid 30 years out of it, so it should be good for a while for us.

Point out that your product is natural – In the US, we emphasise that our sugar comes from natural corn. You could do the same with sugar or if the punters are already sceptical of cane sugar, you could start using phrases like ‘made with real fruit’ instead. We know it’s all the same, but it seems to reassure the public and throw them off the scent (for a while at least).

Produce meaningless front of pack labels – If you are a beverage manufacturer, proudly display the number of calories per serving. Of course the damage being done by sugar has nothing to do with calorie content, but it looks like you care about your customer’s health. You can also be cute with the number of servings in a package. Consumers will assume they are holding one serving in their mitts, when in fact there are two (or more).

If you’re a cereal manufacturer, produce a dizzying array of numbers which compare the number of grams of up to 12 ingredients (in a serve slightly larger than an espresso glass) to the hypothetical requirements of an adult male. Make sure you point out meaningless information about the high sugar product on the front of the pack. Things like high in “Fiber” or “Low Fat” seem to work well here.

And of course, fiercely lobby against the introduction of any traffic light nutrition labelling system. Those systems would stop people buying just about everything we sell. You can say you are already providing more than enough information.

Produce a Light Version – Obviously we don’t mean use less sugar. We all know that would mean our products wouldn’t sell. No, the way to go is to produce a smaller container (beverage) or package (confectionary). This has numerous benefits apart from the obvious opportunity for profit. You can pitch “built-in portion control” as part of a “healthy lifestyle”. Clearly you don’t want consumers to reduce their consumption, so remember to sell the smaller cans in 8 packs rather than 6 packs.

Get the experts onside – Nutritionists are more than happy to line up to help us spread the messages about ‘moderation’ and how all that really matters is the ‘number of calories’. Naturally, they won’t do this for free, so be ready to sponsor some conferences and even employ some of them. Obviously it would be even better to get some doctors on board, but they are paid a bit more than Nutritionists so be prepared to part with some serious money for that one.

We very much hope it doesn’t come to this in Australia, but as a last ditch effort, you might have to set up some outfits like the Center for Consumer Freedom or Americans Against Food Taxes. They will help make your lobbying look independent.

If you are forced to do it, you could model your version on the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation (sponsored by Cadbury, Coca-Cola, Nestle, McDonald’s etc). They have come in very handy in the past to independently remind people that there is “no such thing as a bad food or beverage.”

Good Luck and remember it aint over until the fat lady dies.

Warning: there is a possibility that this letter was not written by Big Sugar, your mileage may vary, product may not work as advertised, read the PDS in the accompanying brochure, caveat emptor, etc, etc.

Also published in Crikey.

Why fructose-laden drinks when there’s a healthy option on tap?

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When I was a kid, I was able to sit in a classroom for an hour (or even two) without requiring rehydration. Adults were able to go for a walk without toting a drink bottle. And the only reason to carry water in a car was to refill the radiator.

When did we become a nation requiring constant hydration? Somehow we have all come to believe that drinking is a core part of being healthy. Kidney Health Australia helped propagate the message that we should all be drinking eight glasses of water a day. And even the official dietary guidelines chimed in to tell us that we should be getting two litres a day. Unsurprisingly, they got plenty of support from water authorities and bottled water manufacturers.

Unfortunately, there is no scientific basis whatsoever for such a recommendation. Hydration has nothing to do with kidney health. It turns out that high blood pressure and diabetes are the primary risks to our kidney health. And we’re suffering more than ever before. End stage kidney disease (the bit just before you die) in men increased by 31% between 2000 and 2007 (19% for women). And because you can get by on just 10% kidney function without showing symptoms, most kidney disease goes undiagnosed.

But try as they might, Kidney Health Australia are having difficulty stuffing the drink-water-for-kidney-health genie back in the bottle. We love a health message that encourages us to do something we were going to do anyway. We’re even keener to do it if we can convince ourselves its cool.

Ok we weren’t going to drink 2 litres of water a day (well, not after the first day). But we pretty quickly convinced ourselves that any drink counted. As long as we were getting the required fluid volume. Big Sugar was more than happy to help us with our self delusion.

Coca-Cola for example, has a special site dedicated to letting us know that “water* plays many important roles in the body”. The asterisk is there to remind us that “it’s not just plain drinking water that contributes to hydration” (just in case you temporarily forgotten they’ve got some sugary stuff to sell to you).

But there probably aren’t too many people that believe a bottle of coke is really health food (with the possible exception of Kerry Armstrong). It’s much more of a problem when this kind of intentional deception sneaks into the marketing of children’s drinks.

School canteens don’t sell soft drinks these days. And schools certainly don’t encourage children to sip Pepsi throughout the day. They don’t do it because the various state health authorities have declared softdrinks to be too full of sugar to be safely consumed by children. Instead they sell water. No, not plain old boring tap water. Its water, but ‘fun’.

Wacky Water and Play Sports Water have the school canteen market sown up. They’re both made by P&N Beverages and the lead line from the Wacky Water website sums up their approach to the market. It says “Do you find drinking the amount of water that nutritionists recommend difficult?”

Both drinks are targeted firmly at worried parents. They fret that little Hermione and Reginald are dehydrated (and their kidney’s are on the verge of packing it in) but they know they have Buckley’s of getting them to drink ‘enough’ water. Solution: Wacky, Sporty, Water.

These ‘Waters’ are sweetened with pure fructose. Somehow this counts as neither “added sugar” (which it is) nor “artificial sweetener” (which it also is) by the time it gets onto the Fun, Wacky, Sporty labels of these bottles of (what looks like) pure fresh water (they leave the colouring out for some reason). Education departments are happy that everyone is being healthy. Parents feel less guilty. And kids can’t believe they’re actually being encouraged to drink this stuff.

A 500ml bottle of Sports Water delivers 21g of pure fructose to the thirsty child. To get that much fructose from sugar, you’d have to chow down on 10 teaspoons of the white gold.

Inconveniently, it seems that all that ‘natural’ fructose causes chronic kidney disease. So these ‘waters’ are not exactly having the desired effect.

A study released last month confirmed that fructose directly causes high blood pressure. It does this by raising uric acid levels in the blood. High uric acid levels are known to cause kidney disease, as is the high blood pressure itself. Eighty percent of patients with failed kidneys have high blood pressure.

Every day in Australia seven new patients are added to the list of people requiring dialysis or transplantation of failed kidneys and the rate is accelerating. One in ten deaths are now as a result of kidney disease. What are these numbers going to look like by the time the kids we’re stuffing with fructose wear out their kidneys?

Our children will drink water when they are thirsty. So make sure there is water available in the playground. But every day that fructose laden drinks are sold as water adds more kids to the back of the queue for a new kidney.

Fructose is deadly. There is no justification for selling it to our children as health food. Its time our governments (and those they pay to care) pulled the pin on this disgusting display of corporate greed at the expense of children’s health.

Also published in Crikey

Why aren’t they studying soft drink consumption?

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Here’s a brain teaser for you. What do you do when the people who most need your product can’t afford to buy it? Purveyors of big screen TVs and other electronic knick-knacks have found the answer in buy-now- pay-nothing-til-2037 deals. And that works well where the punters are queuing round the block but just don’t have the readies.

But what to do when your potential customers don’t know they need your product? And even if they did, may not have the wherewithal to drop up to 13 large acquiring it? Give up? Then forget about a career in pharmaceutical PR. You get the government to pay for it, dummy.

The folks at Allergan have exactly this problem. Allergan make a nifty little thing called a lap-band. If you chop open an obese person and whack a lap-band in, they suddenly can’t eat as much and the theory is that should do all sorts of good things for them.

Lap-Band surgery is starting to get very popular. Two years ago, just 8,193 were done in Australia, but last financial year this had grown to 12,247. A whopping 50% increase in the market in just one year. There’s gold in them thar hills.

You don’t need Glenn Stevens to run the numbers to realise that the number of people with the necessary girth AND mullah is not going to last much longer. Solution: get the government (that is, the taxpayer) to step in and start picking up the tab.

Allergan’s done all the right things. Endow a university with some dosh to research how terrific their product is. Smile happily as the researchers go forth and tell the government. Glow contentedly when the government makes a recommendation that consideration be given to ‘boosting access’ to their product. It’s all good stuff, but it’s not exactly moving like a freight train and where’s that government money?

Time for a bit of PR creativity. Time to introduce the new sport of Extreme Lobbying. Professor Dawn DeWitt from the University of Melbourne explained how it works to ABC’s AM program yesterday.

Prof DeWitt is helping the folks at the Monash Centre for Obesity Research and Education (funded by Allergan) with a new “trial” of Allergan’s lap-band product in 30 indigenous Australians in the Goulburn Valley. She wants to see if they have the same success as folks in the “white population”.

This is a product which has been installed in almost 18,500 Australians in the last two years alone. Even basic maths would tell us that over 500 of those could have been of indigenous descent (and some of them may even have been from the Goulburn Valley). So what exactly will this trial tell us that that we don’t already know? Is there some suggestion that people in Goulburn Valley are constructed differently from the rest of us?

Prof DeWitt was ready with the answer to that one. She told AM that “if [the trial] does work then we can go to government and say look there really ought to be a special program to support this in an ongoing way.” Ah, right, so this has nothing to do with the health of indigenous Australians and everything to do with getting taxpayers to pick up the tab for lab-band surgery.

Indigenous Australians suffer 6 times the rate of Type II Diabetes when compared to the rest of the population. Unfortunately for Allergan they also have significantly less purchasing power when it comes to surgical solutions. This latest trial is clearly nothing more than a disingenuous attempt to end-run that problem and open up a brand new government funded gold-mine for Allergan.

Extreme lobbying uses actual surgical intervention in order to make your political point (let’s hope Turnbull doesn’t start doing that – Rudd-ectomy anyone?). This trial is not asking patients to fill in a survey or keep a food diary. This is significant surgery that requires major re-operation in 1 in 5 cases.

In more than half of the recipients, it does not result in significant weight loss. At most, it has only a two in five chance of causing a remission of Type II Diabetes (for up to 9 years). And even according to the lastest research funded by Allergan, patients only gain 1.2 years of life expectancy. To put these trial recipients through all of this for research purposes is questionable. But to do it as part of a lobbying exercise is outrageous.

If Monash’s Centre for Obesity Research is really that concerned about the rate of diabetes in indigenous Australians, how about spending some time and money looking at the fact that they consume twice as much soft drink as the rest of the population? Oh that’s right, silly me. No-one’s going to pay them to do that.

Also published in Crikey

Wake up Australia

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It’s been a rough few weeks for Big Sugar in the United States. First, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that soda and sugar-sweetened beverages “play a particular role in the obesity epidemic.”

Then the American Heart Association dramatically reduced their recommendation on safe levels of sugar consumption. They suggested an adult male should eat no more added sugar than is contained in a can of soft drink, women may only have two thirds of a can and children a third or less per day.

The New York City Department of Health then jumped on the bandwagon, releasing it’s ‘Are you pouring on the pounds’ campaign in subway stations all over the Big Apple. The posters depict human fat being poured out of a soft drink bottle and end with the slogan ‘Don’t Drink Yourself Fat’.

Then, up pop New York City health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, nutritionist Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, Kelly Brownell, an obesity expert at Yale University in Connecticut and a bunch of other health experts, demanding that the US tax soft drinks to fund the health effects of their consumption.

And if all that wasn’t enough, some actual science happened as well. Dr Richard Johnson and his team from the University of Colorado reported on a study they had been conducting on the relationship between fructose and high blood pressure. Fructose is a simple sugar which is one half of sucrose (table sugar). They found that if they gave men a 200g daily dose of fructose for two weeks they increased their blood pressure.

At the start of the study, 19% of the participants were diagnosed as suffering metabolic syndrome (a condition made up of several conditions including excess weight around the midriff, high blood pressure, raised blood sugar and raised levels of blood fats known as triglycerides). At the end of the study (just two weeks later), this figure had more than doubled to 44%. In addition to the increase in blood pressure, there were also rises in triglyceride levels, insulin levels and measures of insulin resistance, as well as a lowering in ‘healthy’ HDL cholesterol levels.

You’d need to drink two, 2 Litre bottles of soft drink a day to get 200g of fructose, so it was more than twice the amount the average American consumes. But in just two weeks it had caused considerable harm indeed.

On the same day a joint study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research reported that even at the levels currently being consumed, soft drink was doing serious harm. The researchers interviewed 42,000 Californians. They found that 24% of adults drink one or more soft drinks a day, and these adults are 27% more likely to be overweight than their peers who didn’t.

In the face of this constant barrage, Big Sugar has had no choice but to hit back. Today they’ve launched a co-ordinated national newspaper and television campaign putting their side of the story.

Full page advertisements made up to look like news stories declared corn sugar to be innocent of accusation that it makes people fat. And TV ads ran a similar line accusing the consumer of unfairly blaming corn sugar for his weight problem. High Fructose corn sugar is what Americans use to sweeten soda instead of sugar. It’s functionally equivalent to sugar and is about 55% fructose.

Corn refiners are sick of being blamed for the obesity epidemic and the ads point out that HFCS is no worse than sugar or honey. Which is perfectly true, but meaningless when all three contain similar amounts of fructose.

Meanwhile, juice maker Welch’s, soft drink maker PepsiCo Inc, the American Beverage Association, the Corn Refiners Association, McDonald’s Corp and Burger King Holdings Inc have formed a group called ‘Americans against Food Taxes’ to lobby against the proposed soda tax. It’s clearly panic button time.

Putting aside for a minute the inanity of fighting about whether sugar is worse than HFCS or the pros and cons of sin taxes. The point is that there is a significant public debate going on across the pond. The science is being discussed in daily newspapers, dramatic limitations are being recommended and the politicians and universities are in the debate up to their ying-yangs.

Here in Sugarland exactly none of the above is happening. Our Heart Foundation endorses high sugar snacks for kids. Our national healthy eating guidelines recommend levels of consumption that are at least twice the American recommendations. And our public health messages are stuck in the low fat 1960s with barely a mention of sugar. You won’t see Big Sugar running desperate (and stupid) TV ads here. They don’t need to. There is no public concern. There is no debate. And there is no PR problem.

Wake up Australia.

Also published in Crikey

Big Sugar pulls the sugar out of Toddler Milk

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You won’t often find Big Sugar’s publicity department asleep at the wheel. So when it happens it’s worth wondering why. Over the last few months, some of the makers of toddler formula (the stuff for 1+ year olds) have been quietly tinkering with their high sugar concoctions. A few have always been sugar free, but now most of the rest have removed the sucrose and replaced it with either glucose or lactose.

Sucrose is common or garden variety, sugar. Its half glucose and half fructose. Lactose is the sugar found in milk. It is half galactose (which is metabolised to glucose) and half glucose. When Big Sugar replaces sugar with glucose or lactose they are really just eliminating the fructose.

Fructose is what makes sugar (and the food containing it) taste sweet. Some of these drinks used to contain more fructose than an equivalent serve of soft drink. So getting rid of it will have a material impact on the taste of the product. Fructose is also highly addictive, so deleting it isn’t going to help sales much either.

Call me a cynical old lawyer (gone on, you know you want to), but when Big Sugar starts dressing up as Santa Claus I start looking for gotcha’s. Why would an industry built on getting kids hooked on sweet drinks from the age of 12 months (it’s illegal to include sugar in formulations for babies) suddenly voluntarily decide to remove the substance that makes them both sweet and addictive?

Even more interestingly why wouldn’t they tell us they were doing us such an enormous favour? They’re not normally ones to hide their lights under bushels. And I can’t imagine that this could be viewed as anything other than a positive move by everyone (except perhaps the kids who have to drink the stuff). Whenever a company does something for the common good at the expense of its own bottom line, it’s normally (literally) on the six o’clock news. But not this time.

Maybe Big Sugar has been reading the recent studies that unequivocally link fructose consumption to obesity, type II diabetes and heart disease? And out of sheer concern for their customers they’ve decided to pull it out. Yeah, right. Those studies have been there for a while and Big Sugar haven’t shown any signs of altering any of their other products. In fact Nestle is doing exactly the opposite with its high fructose Fruit Fix concoction. So that can’t be it.

A more likely source for this wave of brotherly love may be Big Pharma. The baby formula and toddler milk market is pretty much the only place you’ll find Big Sugar and Big Pharma competing for shelf space in the local supermarket.

Drug companies actually commissioned some of the research which proves the damage being done by fructose. They were looking for treatments for diabetes and obesity, but in order to treat it they had to understand it thoroughly. Hence they paid for studies around human hormone interaction which lay the blame squarely at the door of fructose (and therefore sugar). Legal deniability is a bit tricky when you were actually signing the cheques and (presumably) reading the outcomes.

The other legal difficulty which might face a manufacturer is that these products are often definitely a child’s first exposure to fructose. If you (I’m assuming you aren’t a toddler) or I front up with a lawsuit claiming fructose made us fat and sick, we’ll have problems proving that any particular tentacle of Big Sugar sold us the sugar which did the damage. We will have been eating sugar from all manner of vendors for years. This is nowhere near as difficult where the individual is in nappies and has only ever consumed fructose in one or two products.

So the combination of actual knowledge of the research and a high probability of causation may have pushed some companies to quietly alter the formula before anyone wises up. And they probably don’t want to jump up and down about that just in case it gives any smart alec lawyers any ideas.

If they can do this for baby formula how about cutting the rest of us a break as well? How about ‘reformulating’ softdrinks by replacing sucrose with glucose? How about having a go at chocolate bars as well? Or breakfast cereals while they’re at it?

I don’t want to look a gift conglomerate in the mouth. They should be applauded for taking the sugar out of toddler formula. But it’s depressing to think the rest of us are expendable just because we’d have a harder time getting a case to stick. It’s time the rest of us demanded parity with toddlers and got a sugar free food supply as well.

Also published in Crikey.

Ad self-regulator says 72% sugar is a simple serve of fruit

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The Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) has ruled on my complaint about Nestle’s Fruit Fix advertising. Apparently Nestle has done absolutely nothing wrong. It’s perfectly ok to advertise a product which is 72% sugar as being equivalent to one serve of fruit.

It’s also wrong to suggest that the product was targeting children under 14 years of age. No you see, it was their parents being targeted, so there was no need to consider the special provisions relating to advertising to children.

Even though the ASB acknowledged that children would be viewing the programs in which it appeared, they decided that the ‘advertisement is not directed to children’. And I suppose that’s right, looking at the ad again it probably is trying to target parents feeling guilty about their children’s nutrition rather than the children themselves. Though I’m sure the kids don’t mind the lolly in their lunch box.

The ASB spends much time in its decision (enter 284/09 in the case search box) pointing out that it is not applying a legal test in its determinations. They don’t want you to go mistaking them for an impartial regulator or court. Rather they are an industry funded self-regulator who sees their role as providing ‘guidance to advertisers’ on what the community considers acceptable.

For a non-legal analysis, the ASB have gotten very pernickety about the definition of fruit. I was suffering under the impression that I knew what fruit was. A strawberry was an example that leapt to mind when thinking about strawberry flavoured Fruit Fix’s, but as Nestle pointed out, they contain more grapes and apples than anything else. Even so, each of these whole fruits is at most 15.5% sugar. Process them, squish them and dry them out though, and you can get that up to the 75% range.

Advertisers of all manner of confectionary should be very pleased with the ruling indeed. According to the test which the ASB seems to be applying, a Mars Bar could be advertised as equivalent to three serves of fruit. The Mars Bar is only 56% sugar compared to 72% for the Fruit Fix, so maybe they could top it up a tad and chuck in a little more salt so it didn’t taste too sweet.

And I can’t wait to see a range of new advertisements from Big Sugar telling us that a 250ml bottle of soft drink is equivalent to two serves of fruit. They will of course have to make sure that the sugar molecules involved were once part of a piece of fruit rather than the dreaded sugar cane. Perhaps they could demand ID from the sugar molecules at the factory door. That should sort them out.

Now I’m sure the ASB (and Nestle for that matter) would say that I am unfairly shooting the messenger and they might just be right. They are simply applying the black letter of the wording of the Australian Dietary Guidelines. They clearly state (somewhere in the fine print) that one and a half tablespoons of sultanas are equivalent to a serve of fruit and so is half a cup (125 ml) of fruit juice. So while I can rant and rave about how much sugar is in those things, the people watching over our health have deemed those to be equivalent to fruit.

Pureed, Dried and Juiced (once was) fruit is no more fruit, than a bag of sugar is grass. It’s time the escape clause was removed from the guidelines. It’s time the game of ducks and drakes with sugar molecules was bought to an end. And its time advertisers were made to call a lolly a lolly.

Suggesting to time-poor parents that they were in some way doing their children a favour by giving them a lump of sticky sugar and calling it fruit is just plain appalling. Big Sugar knows it’s not true. Your kids’ dentist knows it’s not true (go on, ask her). And you (and your kids) shouldn’t swallow it, no matter how much the ASB is happy to believe that nothing untoward is going on.

Also published in Crikey