The food police start beating up on sugar

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

From The Australian 21 January, 2014

IT can be a long time between global flu epidemics if you work at the World Health Organisation, where the struggle to fill the working day must seem interminable.

No wonder director-general Margaret Chan is constantly looking round for the next big thing. “It’s not just Big Tobacco any more,” Chan told a health conference in Finland last year. “Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda and Big Alcohol.”

Gone are the days when the WHO would justify its existence trying to control Big Malaria or offer relief from Big Malnutrition. Today’s pressing task is to eliminate the scourge of sugar and bring an end to the pandemic of podginess now sweeping the globe.

The nanny state has been recast as the nanny planet and the WHO has assumed responsibility for our diet as it seeks to turn back what Chan calls “the globalisation of unhealthy lifestyles”.

The increase in global obesity, says Chan, “is not a failure of individual willpower,” but “a failure of political will to take on big business”.

Sugar is the new tobacco, say cloistered activists like Liverpool University’s Simon Capewell who fear “sugary drinks and junk foods are now pressed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry”.

Ordinary people are held to be no more responsible for what they put in their mouths than curious toddlers who swallow brightly coloured beads.

Cheap and plentiful food contributes to what the activists call “an obesogenic environment”. Toblerone is no longer a triangular treat that evokes happy images of the Swiss Alps; it is a “poor lifestyle choice” that has been determined by forces beyond your control.

Yet if we agree with the WHO that the world is — so to speak — getting rounder, it surely demonstrates the triumph of global capitalism in the war against want.

Global wealth and global health are inseparable. A baby born in 2014 can expect to live to 70 on average, twice as long as one born before World War I.

Yet this has not stopped the long campaign to turn obesity from a private to a public health issue from gathering momentum.

Chan compares it to the 19th-century sanitation movement that correctly identified open sewers running through household basements in rapidly industrialised cities as a health problem.

Convinced that diseases like cholera were spread by invisible airborne spores rising from the stinking drains, they thought it was enough to pump human effluence straight into the Thames.

A few kilometres down river, the water was pumped back out again for domestic use.

It took the cholera epidemic of 1854 and the forensic work of John Snow for the penny to drop. The parasitic micro-organism vibrio cholera spread through water.

The airborne miasma theory was fiction. In their ignorance, the do-gooders had made things worse, though it was not their style to admit it.

Now, as then, the illiberal tone of public health rhetoric and its contempt for the wisdom of common people should make us cautious.

Chan and her colleagues could be right, and the discovery of a causal link between excess sugar and Type 2 diabetes as strong as that between smoking, cancer and heart disease may be just around the corner.

A reasonable person, however, looking at the track record of those now demonising sugar, would conclude it is equally likely that they are wrong or have exaggerated the link to the point of absurdity.

Certainly, no reasonable observer would accept Chan’s conspiracy theory about the malevolent behaviour of big corporations, which irredeemably colours her view.

Since the early 1960s, when the lipophobes seized the obesity debate and pushed the sucrophobes into a corner, food manufacturers have gone out of their way to market products lower in saturated fat that the so-called experts thought were the problem.

They did so not out of malevolence or benevolence, but because they thought they could make a profit marketing margarine with a healthy twist, to appeal to educated, affluent and health conscious consumers.

Yet, after more than 50 years of trying, scientists have failed to provide conclusive evidence that lowering fat intake reduces weight or reduces the risk of heart disease in the general population.

The variety of low-fat products has increased incrementally and consumption of full-fat products has declined. As we are constantly reminded, however, it has not stopped us getting fat.

Last year, the British Medical Journal editorialised: “The sugar-versus-fat debate is far from over, but the pendulum is now definitely swinging away from fat as the root of all evil.”

The sucrophobes, derided and excluded from health conferences in the 1960s and criticised for their fat scepticism, are now in charge.

The WHO has cut its recommended daily sugar threshold from 10 teaspoons to five, yet an irrefutable link between sugar, obesity and disease is as elusive as ever.

Indeed, there are some awkward facts that the anti-sugar lobby would prefer us to ignore.

In common with other developed countries such as Britain and the US, sugar consumption per person is in long-term decline in Australia.

Between 1938 and 2004 annual sugar consumption fell from 55kg per person to 47kg. Since then it has fallen off even faster. Consumption in 2011 was about 42kg.

We may be larger than we used be, but the chances of dying from heart disease in Australia have halved since the 70s. Type 2 diabetes is far too common, but rates are still comfortably below the OECD average.

Nevertheless, Australian sugar growers like Paul Schembri are concerned at the escalating campaign. “We are very proud of the product we produce,” he told Mackay’s Daily Mercury last week. “We don’t take kindly to having our brand trashed.”

Sugar may be the new alcohol or tobacco to some. To others it may be the new live cattle.