Sugar Food Inc
By Dr Aseem Malhotra
On paper, you would think it had been a good week for those with serious concerns about the amounts of sugar that so many of us are consuming.
On Wednesday, for instance, no less an authority than the UN’s World Health Organisation came out with the firm recommendation that we should all be aiming to cut our sugar intake by half and that children should not be given fizzy drinks at all.
That came just one day after Dame Sally Davies, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, proposed that a sugar tax needed to be introduced if we wanted to cut sugar intake and reduce obesity.
And it came on the same day that an eminent New York cardiovascular research scientist warned that the long-running demonisation of fats, and saturated fats in particular, could be entirely misplaced.
The real killer, according to Dr James DaNicolantio, particularly when it comes to heart disease and Type 2 diabetes — those two scourges of the modern age — is sugar.
After these three dramatic interventions, surely it is game, set and match for those of us who would like to see sugar consumption seriously reduced? Well, as a cardiologist and science director of the campaigning health group, Action On Sugar, I can tell you that we’re certainly not dancing in the streets just yet.
For despite the mounting evidence of the damage to health done by sugar — evidence that many working in the field would now describe as overwhelming — this was the response from the Prime Minister’s official spokesman on Wednesday: ‘What we are doing is working with the industry. You have already seen commitments from retailers and food manufacturers to reduce levels of salt, to remove some artificial fats, to reduce calorie content and improve labelling.’
It’s the first sentence — ‘what we are doing is working with the industry’ — that gives the game away because it’s absolutely true.
The links between Government ministers and food manufacturers, and indeed between scientists who are supposed to advise the Government and the food manufacturers, are nothing short of astonishing. For these are the same food manufacturers who have been adding extra sugar to processed foods, confectionery and fizzy drinks for decades.
It is the closeness of those links that are widely blamed for a compulsory food traffic-light system — an idea once enthusiastically championed by the Food Standards Agency and designed to give shoppers an idea of the nutritional value (or not) of the item they were about to buy — quietly dying a death soon after the Coalition came to power.
But then what do we expect when the London Olympic Games, the biggest celebration of fitness and health in this country for decades, was sponsored by Coca-Cola and McDonald’s?
And what do we expect when, as this newspaper revealed only last month, fast-food companies, supermarkets and restaurant chains have had dozens of meetings with ministers since the last election?
Nando’s, Tesco, Pepsi, Mars and, almost inevitably, the ubiquitous McDonald’s are among those who have had the chance to bend the ministerial ear since 2010.
Government ministers hate their close links to the food industry being exposed by the media. But these links exist and are one reason, I believe, for the Government’s lax approach.
Too often, when a minister pronounces on dietary matters, I wonder whether he is just saying what his chums in the food industry have told him to say. Meanwhile, rates of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer — all conditions with increasingly strong links to sugar intake — continue to rise.
The Food and Drink Federation, the industry lobby group, for instance, has had 16 meeting with ministers since the last election and an astonishing 99 with Government officials. By contrast, we in Action On Sugar have had just one, although a second, we’re told, is in the pipeline.
There’s no way of knowing who has met whom, but there is also no hiding the conflicts of interest.
Bill Morgan, special adviser to former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, for instance, came from a PR firm that has Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods and Tesco on its books, although the PR company has always denied that Mr Morgan worked on two of those accounts.
But its website did highlight his potential for linking the interests of its clients with Government policy.
Even Mr Lansley, himself, architect of the Government’s ‘Responsibility Deal’, which effectively handed responsibility for the levels of fats, salt and sugar in food to the food manufacturers themselves, has past links with the industry. In 2009, while still Shadow Health Secretary, he was director of a marketing firm where clients included Pepsi, Mars, Pizza Hut and Diageo’s Guinness.
Earlier this year, Channel 4’s Dispatches programme revealed that five of the eight members of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee of Nutrition (SACN) received substantial funding from large confectionary companies.
These included the committee’s chairman, Professor Ian Macdonald, who receives money not only from Unilever, the world’s biggest ice-cream maker, but also from Coca-Cola and Mars.
His committee colleague, Professor Tom Sanders, one of the Government’s most trusted advisers when it comes to diet, sugar and heart disease, has had his research funded to the tune of £4.5 million by the sugar giant Tate & Lyle.
There is, of course, no evidence — or indeed, any suggestion — that members of the SACN have ever put the interests of the companies that sponsor them first.
But the committee has gone against prevailing scientific opinion as rates of obesity and diet-related diabetes have grown and its reports are said to be one of the main reasons why official health advice on the amounts of sugar we eat haven’t changed in 11 years.
This advice suggests that an individual can consume a staggering 22 teaspoons of sugar a day as part of a guideline daily amount. On Wednesday, the World Health Organisation suggested that figure should be just six teaspoons. The difference is huge and, in the face of the dramatic intervention by the WHO, I wonder if the SACN’s committee’s recommendations will suddenly be changing now?
On Wednesday, I was due to go on Channel 4 News to discuss the WHO’s new recommendations but the debate was cancelled when the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) withdrew, apparently after discovering that I would be up against them.
Had they turned up, I might have pointed out that the relentless drive for profit among food companies had contributed to unnecessary suffering for millions of people and thousands of deaths that might otherwise have been prevented.
Moreover, there is growing evidence that not all calories are the same (contrary to what the food companies will tell you). Research from Stanford University last year showed that for every 150 sugar calories (from a can of Coke, for example) consumed above the recommended daily calorie intake, there is an 11-fold increase in the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes compared with 150 ‘excess’ calories consumed from a non-sugar source.
That increase is completely independent of body weight and levels of exercise: in other words, we are all vulnerable.
Yet still the Government does nothing. And as long as influential organisations such as the British Nutrition Foundation have a membership that reads like the Who’s Who of the sugar industry — Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s McDonald’s, Nestle and Pepsi among them — and the British Dietetic Association can promote an Eat Well plate that includes a full-sugar can of cola and fruit juice as part of a balanced diet, I fear that won’t change.
But change it must, for our health, and particularly the health of our children, depends upon it.
The WHO is absolutely right, we must cut down on our consumption of dietary sugar and it’s high-time the Government cast aside its cosy relationship with the food industry, faced up to the unpalatable scientific facts and did the right thing.