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Sugar Demons, Sweet Lobbies and Taxes

It came across on the ABC’s Four Corners as something of a junkie’s confession: I am an addict, and I know. The conservative MP for the Australian federal seat of Dawson, George Christensen, was not mincing words so much as spouting them in crude confessional form. Regulating the sugar industry by means of a levy or tax ignored personal responsibility.

“I think that a lot of the issue with obesity has got to come back to telling people that they are personally responsible for the choices they make.” He was a “fat bloke” who had made regrettable health decisions. He had to accept the consequences of those food choices that found their way down his “gob”.

Christensen is not merely a representative of a federal seat, but representative of a country that has found its way to physical hugeness. Australia has become one of the fattest nations on the planet, rippling with health worries. Sixty per cent of its populace is overweight or obese. By 2025, the figure will be 80 percent. It is such figures that have officials and those preoccupied with health policy irate and alarmed.

Christensen’s individualist acceptance is standard form for industries that have found certain costs and regulations unnecessary and damaging to the purse strings. No changes of behaviour, goes the argument, will be induced by such a sugar levy. But the sweet lobby in Canberra has moneyed depth and financial dogmatism to pursue this variation of free will gone wrong. “Big industry knows,” observes former ACT health minister Michael Moore, “that if you’re going to have influence then you’re going to have to talk to members [of parliament].”

Australia’s representatives, notably those in designated “sugar seats”, have been taking note of the food and beverages lobby for some time. Where there is a sugar industry, there are votes to be had, beasts to be propitiated. The Beverages Council’s Annual Report in 2016 strikes a certain note of pride in spending a “vast amount of resources” in fighting proponents of a sugar tax, notably those in the major political parties.

What matters here is the global profile of the sugar industry, one sustained by the same tactical profile as the tobacco lobby. Tactics of minimisation and distortion, packaged by a covering of legitimacy regarding research and health effects, dominate the sugar lobbyist’s agenda.

Such research has a long and compromised history in the annals of nutrition. Along with various co-authors, Christin Kearns published in JAMA Internal Medicine a jaw dropping 2016 study using documents of the Sugar Research Foundation. The investigation showed how some five decades of research on nutrition and heart disease was aggressively cooked by the sugar industry.

“Together with other recent analyses of sugar industry documents, our findings,” concluded the authors, “suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in CHD (coronary heart disease).”

That’s what you get when dolling out some $50,000 in modern money terms to scientists, even in the academically rigorous environs of Harvard University. With appropriate findings cobbled, the result was a skewed and influential publication in the New England Journal of Medicine (Aug 1967). No conflict of interest with the sugar industry was published, but the brief exonerating sugar as a major risk factor in CHD was advanced.

Marion Nestle of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies in NYU did go softly on the scientists who had conducted the research in the 1960s. “Whether they did this deliberately, unconsciously, or because they genuinely believed saturated fat to be the great threat is unknown.” That said, “science is not supposed to work this way. The documents make this review seem more about public relations than science.”

Prior to that, sugar barons were already keen to exploit a deceptive nutritional claim by a simple strategy of avoidance. The link between sugar-rich diets and heart disease would be overlooked in favour of the chosen enemies of dietary fat and cholesterol. Americans keen on reducing fat in their diets, and consequential cholesterol formation, could still be encouraged to consume sugar.

As the SRF president in 1954 claimed in a speech to the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists, “If the carbohydrate industries were to capture this 20 percent of the calories in the US diet (the difference between the 40 percent which fat has and the 20 percent which it ought to have) and if sugar maintained its present share of the carbohydrate market, this change would mean an increase in the per capita consumption of sugar more than a third with a tremendous improvement in general health.”

Specific companies in the sugar business remain the big boys and girls of obfuscation in the world of nutrition science. In league with them are members of the nutrition fraternity such as exercise scientist Steven N. Blair, who find it reluctant on the padding of appropriate industry sponsorship to libel sugar and its role in causing obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

Strong patrons, in short, make for poor, or at the very least questionable research. In 2015, The New York Times found that Coca-Cola, the single dominant producer of sugary beverages, supplied millions in terms of funding to researchers to identify (or not, as the case was) links between sugar consumption and obesity. The focus there was to get more exercise and get over a near clinical obsession on the part of Americans to be weight-conscious.

Coca-Cola, ever mindful of sustaining its appeal, has adopted the similar health and exercise offensive in other markets. In 2016, it was revealed that $1.7 million was expended by the company on fitness groups and academics in Australia alone. Professor Tim Olds of the University of South Australia saw no problems in pocketing $400,000 from the company for an international study on obesity. “I think, frankly,” he sneered, “this is old-style superannuated chardonnay socialism.”

Those from the food industry continue to draw miffed distinctions between the effects of sugar, and the impacts of other behaviours. “There’s no safe level of smoking,” claimed Geoff Parker, CEO of the Australian Beverages Council, “and so we refute any sort of comparison between what’s happening with reducing the prevalence of smoking with reducing the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.” No nanny-state will do for Parker – not even a health conscious one. The sugar demons still have the upper hand.

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  1. etnorb

    Yet another well written & thought-provoking article Dr Kampmark! And so bloody true regarding any “benefits” we get form the amounts of sugar in our food & drinks especially. Just like the bloody Tobacco barons of yesterday, the sugar industry just tells so many “untruths” (lies?) about supposedly how good sugar is for everybody! Bastards the lot of them! I think there should be some sort of “health warning” on any products that contain sugar, as there is on any cigarette packet, regarding the dangers of smoking. Yes people should be more responsible when it come to high sugar levels in food & drinks, but as with smoking, the Government should set the “standard” with regard to health warnings about just how bad sugar can be.

  2. Andrew Smith

    Significant issue of how academia has been leveraged and supported to produce the right research outcomes for corporate and/or conservative politics and related media or PR, whether sugar, climate change/fossil fuels, immigration/population, education etc.

    In the US Jane Mayer (referring to oligarchs and astro turfing) describes it as ‘architecture’ of influence used to inform media and hence, society, which then spreads any message by word of mouth; sad that one has to analyse university based research for process, methodology and credibility at the source in case it’s junk or pseudo science (e.g. ‘sustainability’ and ‘limits to growth’ constructs)?

  3. johno

    There was a good show on SBS a month or two ago. Damon went on a sugar challenge, 40 teaspoons of sugar per day for 60 days. At the end he was basically an emotional physical wreck.

  4. Yvonne Robertson

    It seems the sugar industry can’t afford the tax so the nation should just suffer on so a few farmers – the one interviewed had stopped eating sugar for health reasons – can continue to make a living poisoning others. It is impossible to believe, one expert said, that people since the 1980s just all got completely slovenly. At that reckoning, by 2025 – 85% of them are expected to have done so more over.

    Even more frightening was the effect on memory in the lab animals tested, which consumed as much sugar proportionally as a young Australian males through the consumption of sugary drinks in our society. Results showed that diabetes and fatty liver, remained after the consumption of sugar ceased in male tested lab animals, though females did recover their former state of health.

    It was stated at one part of the documentary that obese people have about 5-12% chance of recovery from obesity after bariatric surgery, but basically no chance of losing weight and keeping it off through their own efforts. We know all this and yet there are no strategies in place or even being discussed, Medicare pays for nothing in terms of bariatric medicine – pharmaceuticals or surgeries. The British health system spends about half it’s budget on treating obesity and health related issues. But yeah – lets just keep the sugar industry alive and hope that neither side of politics blinks and decides to do something, for surely they will lose government in doing so. The organisation which represents sugary drinks including flavoured milk and fruit juices with added sugar, have their AGM at parliament house. It’s completely nauseating how those with money are running and ruining this country.

  5. helvityni

    According to Four Corners 28 countries now have a sugar tax, of course Australia is not amongst them, scared to move on with the times, be it CC, education, fair taxation… we lag behind…

    As upsetting it is to see starving African children, it’s equally heart-breaking, but also depressing to see ‘little’ Aussie four-year olds who are almost as wide as they are tall…

    johno there was a similar program on ABC, maybe a year ago…

  6. stephengb2014

    I recall the show that was about ‘the men who would poison us’. That was about sugar or more precisely about the addictive qualities of corn syrup, a product that was used on most processed food stuffs.

    I have no doubt that any kind of food processing is bad for you, it must contain preservatives like salt and sugar, because these are cheap and plentiful natural preservatives, and processed foods have to have a preservative to increase their shelf life and so be marketable to more consumers.

    The classic is the sugar put into the buns used by the fast food outlets like Macdonalds, Burger King etc. Most bread products have sugar in to increase shelf life.

    For my own part I am sure that I have, but think that I have not, increased my food intake but my waist line has blossomed over the last 40 years. I have no doubt in my m8d that we have been turned into food and sweet beverage junkies, by the processed food industry.

  7. Vikingduk

    Via YouTube: Sugar The Bitter Truth. Watch and learn. Also we can highly recommend the Ketogenic Diet. Basically high in good fats (avos, etc) and no bad carbs, no sugar, honey maple syrup, sugar alternates, no sweeties at all. Your body learns to source the required fuel via the fats and not the sweeties. Weight loss guaranteed, clearer mind, far more usable energy, quicker recovery times. We have, for a while, eliminated fruit from our diet unless it has been fermented. Works for us beautifully.

    Can be hard to make the change initially, but persevere, your body and mind will thank you and you can thank yourself for taking responsibility for you overall wellbeing.

  8. Vikingduk

    And, perhaps remember, processed food is not food, food that comes in a packet is not food. Ultimately, we all have the power to change our current reality. Will, the desire to take responsibility and perseverance. Whilst none of us know our end date, I see no harm in planning a productive and fulfilling life with various strategies in place, diet, exercise, feeding your soul, your spirit, etc. in the hope to live this life till at least 100.

  9. New England Cocky

    It has been known and reported that plant sugar, sucrose, is a poison when used indiscriminately or excessively. This has been known since about 1905 when President Herbert (?) Roosevelt is reported as refusing to believe that six tablespoons of sugar on his high hidden sugar corn flakes would damage his health. Indeed, it is reported that the US sugar industry employed Pinkertons to steal all the books exposing the toxic dangers of sugar before WWI. Check out Dufty, “Sugar Blues”, 1975.

    CocaCola is the best brass cleaner available. Just soak your brass object overnight to bring out the clean fresh patina.

    I have always thought that most Australian sugar was exported, so a local sugar tax should have little if any effect on Australian sugar growers. Then many of the sugar mills have been sold to foreign interests and the subsequent cost cutting measures by the new foreign owners may be more financially damaging to the growers than a healthy Australian community.

    Perhaps George needs to do some work collecting proper statistics about the industries in his electorate.

  10. Dennis Bauer

    Last March I came across Low Carb Down Under on Youtube. On April 14 2017, I started this way of eating, I was 127 kgs, I had Diabetes, had it for the previous 14 years, type 2, for the 3 month blood test Hba1b was 10 mmol/L fasting sugar was 11.3, On April 14 th I went cold turkey, I stopped all sugar and carbohydrates, to do this I fasted for 3 days, then when I ate I ate only meat salads vegs, the cravings for the first week was as bad as any, I have done them all except heroin, sugars is the worst, each day I got on the scales I lost weight, by 3 weeks and 6 days I had lost the first 10 kg. My sugar readings went from 15 mmol/L to an average of 6 mmol/L over 3 weeks, after 4 weeks I stopped taking metformin, I stopped taking Glycerzade after the first week, I kept a 4 week graph. It is Thursday 3 May 2018 I am 91 Kgs I take no medication, stopped Zoloft even, I have never felt so well for many many years, I can run again, I have energy to burn, I sleep less, I am active, I look forward to each day, and sugar and carbohydrates to this body is poison.

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