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The World Health Organisation takes a tough stand on sugar. It’s about time we listened.

Thanks to David Gillespie, author of Sweet Poison, for providing this update on the WHO’s latest report on sugar. The special interest groups will no doubt be raising their voices in the not too distant future. Readers might also be interested in this recent publication on the relationship between financial conflict of interest and research on the impact of sugar sweetened beverages.

Last week the WHO (World Health Organization) leaked a draft report about sugar. The report will tell the world’s health authorities that they should be severely limiting the amount of sugar we all eat. It will recommend that we consume no more than 5 teaspoons of sugar a day. Given the average Australian is putting away somewhere closer to 35-45 teaspoons a day, it’s a very big call indeed.

The WHO is the health policy unit of the United Nations. Its aim is provide evidence based leadership on health research. It is well funded, free from corporate influence and motivated entirely by a desire to ensure that the 92 UN member countries get the best possible, evidence based, health advice. The WHO doesn’t run a Tick program or receive sponsorship from the processed food industry. Indeed it has even recently taken the extraordinary step of banning one ‘research’ group sponsored by industry from participating in its decision making processes.

Shrinath Reddy, a cardiologist and member of the WHO panel of experts, told the Sunday Times the WHO is moving on sugar because “There is overwhelming evidence coming out about sugar-sweetened beverages and other sugar consumption links to obesity, diabetes and even cardiovascular disease.”

The worldwide burden for those diseases is accelerating very quickly. According to a new report out this week the number of overweight and obese in the developing world has quadrupled since 1980.

A billion people in the developing world are now on the chronic disease express. But don’t worry, we still win. Less than a third of the population in China and India is overweight compared to our two thirds or more. They are just starting to get the hang of this Western Diet Thingy, so expect very big rises in the very near future.

The WHO have looked dispassionately at the evidence and have seen the tsunami of human misery caused by sugar coming for more than a decade. They publicly warned that sugar was strongly implicated in obesity, type II diabetes, hypertension and heart disease in 2003.

They then took the extraordinary step of telling member governments that they should ensure their populations limited sugar consumption to a maximum of 10% of total calories (around 10 teaspoons of sugar a day – the same amount you would find in a Coke or a large Apple Juice). They did this despite an overt and vicious public campaign conducted by the Food industry.

The US sugar lobby demanded that the US Congress end its $406 million funding of the WHO. This is the same WHO that co-ordinates global action against epidemics like HIV, Bird Flu and SARS. But the US food industry wanted it destroyed because it dared to suggest we eat less sugar.

The lobbying behind the scenes was even more ruthless. Derek Yach, the WHO Executive Director who drove the sugar reduction policy work told a British documentary crew in 2004, that millions were spent trying to torpedo the policy. US Senators wrote directly to the WHO threatening its very existence. They also threatened the Food and Agriculture Organisation (a sister UN department concerned with food production) with a cut in funding.

In the end the food industry campaign paid off. The WHO removed its 10% recommendation from the final text of its recommendation. It was watered down to a suggestion that people ‘cut the amount of sugar in the diet’.

As one of the people involved at the time, Professor Phillip James, Chairman of the International Obesity Taskforce, predicted “we’ll end up with nice little policies telling [us] to have ‘just a bit less sugar and a little more balanced diet’ the nonsense that’s gone on since the Second World War during which time we’ve had this vast epidemic of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.”

Even the briefest glance at the official dietary guidance on sugar in Australia or the UK will tell you Professor James wasn’t too far from the mark with his prediction. Our guidelines are stuffed with words like ‘moderation’ and ‘balanced diet’ when it comes to sugar.

But the thing about evidence is, it doesn’t go away. And in the 10 years since the WHO last tried to save us from sugar, the evidence has become overwhelming (to quote Dr Reddy).

The WHO got a serious kicking when they tried to suggest a 10 teaspoon upper limit on sugar consumption, so you can imagine that the evidence they have reviewed must be truly overpowering to have them step up to the plate again. But this time they want the limit to be 5% (5 teaspoons) or less. I hope they’re wearing their flak jackets because I suspect a whole heap of blood money from the processed food industry is pouring into ‘lobbyists’ pockets as we speak.

The WHO is not running down sugar because it hates sugar farmers. It is not doing it because it likes getting mauled by the US Government (and its sponsors). It’s doing it because we will all suffer immensely if we don’t act on its advice.

I don’t know if the WHO can withstand the punishment they are about to receive. And I have no confidence that their recommended limit will make it through the firestorm of food industry sponsored ‘science’ which will suddenly surface. But I do know that when good people decide the evidence is so powerful that they should say it anyway, then the rest of us better be bloody listening.

 

Comments 21

  1. Rosie Cornell says:

    I’m glad WHO is standing up … it’s about time; however, I am totally opposed to any government telling me what I can and cannot eat. Sorry, but just as there are a lot of people who overindulge with sugar, there are those who have it as an occasional treat. Perhaps the answer lies in educating people rather than yet another heavy-handed big brother knows best policy approach? I may be a cynic, but anything the government (any government) tries to regulate and control invariably gets corrupted; this will be no different and will simply give us more regulation which has the potential to turn law-abiding citizens into criminals with the stroke of a pen. Whatever happened to personal responsibility?

  2. Richard Koser says:

    Pretty sure there are more than 92 member states of the UN. Perhaps 192?

  3. Merve says:

    From the Ancient Greeks to Andrew Bolt, I defend free speech. Except when it comes to advising people on the health risks of consuming too much sugar.

    * Don’t know how anyone could put Ancient Greeks and Andrew Bolt in the same sentence, you would have to ask the IPA.

  4. Jimmyhaz says:

    Sugar is more addictive than cocaine, and responsible for far more deaths than heroin, about time the WHO did something about it.

  5. jackspratt says:

    Gary Taubes is worth a read for the research he has done on sugar. Once you understand the biochemistry, and it is not that difficult to get a grasp of the process, then the evidence is fairly powerful. Essentially it is this, fat is trapped in fat cells as long as insulin is being mobilised. And insulin is mobilised whenever we use sugar. You cannot lose weight from your fat deposits if you consume sugar even if you cut your calorie intake and exercise. You will lose muscle tone, you will starve but your gut will stay.

  6. Leon Miller says:

    Rosie, it’s not a matter of regulating or controlling. Rather, it is a matter of public education. That was the approach with tobacco and it worked, so why not with sugar? Yes, there has to be personal responsibility if people are going to make a change. However, those same people need to be aware of the realities of the hugely negative effects of sugar.

  7. JennyWren says:

    @Rosie, I agree with the personal responsibility mantra but that is being a little disingenuous in this particular debate. There are many types of sugar and refined sugar is the baddie here. Regulation is needed in the form of information for consumers but also in processed foods, where nasties like High Fructose Corn Syrup are used and most people wouldn’t know what that is, if they even read the ingredients at all. (Seriously I learned to do that in Home Science classes in the 80’s and I just cannot believe that people are so trusting of multinational food corporations!!)If you go to a takeaway and the bun in your hamburger is 50% sugar you wouldn’t have any idea about that, would you? It’s not like they list the ingredients like they do in Italy for example. So how exactly are you supposed to take personal responsibility for eating something you aren’t fully informed about? That is what we need the govt for; regulation and information. That’s what the big multis are fighting tooth and nail against.

  8. Peter Byrnes says:

    Hi Rosie, this isn’t about the government telling you what you can eat. It certainly isn’t about criminalising sugar consumption. It is partly about the personal choices people make. But its mainly about the choices that are offered by food manufacturers.

  9. sneedy says:

    Rosie, WHO isn’t trying to regulate or limit how much sugar you CAN eat; it’s trying to give you expert advice on how much sugar you SHOULD eat. World of difference.

    Anyone have a link to the leaked draft?

    …. and queue Bernard Keane on the ‘nanny state’ …

  10. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay says:

    @Leon Miller.I would argue that the tax on tobacco and the limiting of where people are allowed to smoke may have more to do with the decrease in tobacco use than anything else. Public Education is failing miserably where alcohol is concerned and it’s been failing miserably where obesity is concerned for decades.
    I’ve got a challenge for David Gillespie, if he removes his prime motivation for maintaining his weight loss – makes no public appearances, writes no books, no blogs, no publicity whatsoever and receives no money from these activities for a year (and goes back to his old job) – will he be able to keep the weight off?
    Sorry but this guy looks like just another salesman peddling a diet book. Isn’t it time we acknowledged that decades of diet books, supplements, gyms and a dietitian growth industry talking at people about what they should be doing just isn’t working?

  11. JennyWren says:

    @SS perhaps that’s why DG wrote that book, precisely because decades of information, gyms etc aren’t working? How come we are all getting fatter, even the third world now? Don’t you think that it could be the hidden factors in our food which are actually sugars but are disguised (palm oil, HFCS, fructose)and are making us fat.
    Also, don’t forget the famous “low fat” and “99%fat free” alternatives to genuine food have basically taken out the fat (read: flavour) and substituted it with….. a form of sugar. Sugar which has none of the good stuff of fat (protecting the brain etc) just the same ability to put more lard on our waists and contribute to the obesity/diabetes type 2 epidemic.
    I suppose it’s one way of population control….

  12. leon knight says:

    If American senators go after something really hard, you can be absolutely certain that huge and merciless businesses are after your hard-earned with no regard for your health whatsoever.
    The power of rich lobbies in America is a blight on civilisation – more power the WHO, let’s hope they can put a huge dent in those coffers.

  13. Tim nash says:

    Most people are really dumb when it comes to food, and health. Lets face it people would still all be smoking like a chimney if they didn’t regulate the cigarette industry.

    I agree we should be free to eat what we want, but plenty of people are getting rich off addictive food that is packed full of sugar.

  14. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay says:

    @JW – his next book is how vegetable oils are causing cancer. I would also suggest that the third world is now getting fatter because they have access to cheap calories that they did not have beforehand.
    I would suggest that humans are biologically programmed to put on weight when calories are freely available – which for most of the human race has only been very recently. A Human being who did not overeat (and put on weight) when calories were available was likely to die during the lean times.
    I can’t see that eliminating one type of food from everyone’s diet is going to change this and I’d like to see him back up his claims with some research – it wouldn’t be too hard to reproduce his claims with a study on rats but no-one has managed to do this as far as I can see.

  15. Rosemary Stanton says:

    The first Australian Dietary Guidelines (1981) included a guidelines stating “avoid eating too much sugar’. It was almost certainly successful as it led to the sugar industry mounting a huge campaign to convince us that sugar was ‘a natural part of life’.

    The next revision of the Guidelines retained advice on sugar – in spite of food industry pressure to remove it, but I agree with David that the wording ‘eat only moderate amounts of added sugar and foods containing added sugars’ was too vague. I came across people who omitted the ‘only’, giving the advice a totally different meaning!

    The NHMRC’s 2013 revision of the Guidelines found increased evidence for problems caused by added sugars, especially for sugar-sweetened drinks (as WHO has also noted). Some food industry people again lobbied for a guideline on sugar to be dropped. The evidence was against them and the guideline was strengthened reads “limit intake of foods and drinks containing added sugar such as confectionery, sugar-sweetened drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks”. Other sections recommend limiting sweet foods such as cakes, biscuits etc

    We don’t need any added sugar, but the amount anyone can handle varies. Those who are slim and physically active can usually burn off more than those who are sedentary and/or overweight. Indeed, the Dietary Guidelines advise those who need to lose body fat that there really is no room for junk at all.

    BTW – we don’t use high fructose corn syrup in Australia.

  16. 64magpies says:

    SS,have you considered that the decades of dietary interventions haven’t worked because the advice was wrong?
    I am opposed to any tax on food, not least because it may turn out that the sugar theory of obesity is as wrong as the previous advice was…. Maybe for some people anyway. I personally think it’s right though, and I avoid the stuff.

  17. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay says:

    Rosemary – I don’t have a problem with the advice that people should eat less sugar, I have a problem that advice is not working in modifying behavior. Your statement that “It was almost certainly successful as it led to the sugar industry mounting a huge campaign to convince us that sugar was ‘a natural part of life’.” is not evidence. If you could show a large weight loss following this advice that would be evidence. I think the diet industry needs to focus on How to help people to do what they need to rather than telling them What they need to do. And this is hard and I have no answers for this myself but what we are doing now isn’t working.

  18. Hamis Hill says:

    “Pure, White and Deadly” by British Doctor Richard Yudkin.
    Worth reading.
    The challenge for governments, especially those which do not have Science Ministers, is to quantify the financial cost to taxpayers (of the long suffering kind enamoured by conservatives) of something in excess in the national diet which is “Pure, White and Deadly”.
    And perhaps do something about the Vicious Lawless Associations who profit from it.

  19. AR says:

    Like the British Opium Wars, the addicting of the west to sugar was pure commercial imperial imperative, the vast sugar plantations of the Windies needing slave labour which led to…
    And so it goes, and comes around again, sins of the forefathers.

  20. Rosemary Stanton says:

    Shaniq1ua – I agree with your point that advice is not working in modifying behaviour. Advice plays a role but is unlikely to change behaviour on its own. We saw this with smoking. Telling people of the hazards of smoking was not effective on its own to decrease smoking rates. When combined with banning advertising, curtailing places where people could smoke, changing public attitudes with the assistance of anti-smoking ads, increasing prices and various campaigns directed at youth, the end result was a dramatic reduction in the number of smokers. Structural changes were needed. The same applies to changing people’s diets.

    My point was to counteract the idea being promoted by some that Australia’s dietary guidelines ignored sugar. From the first dietary goals for Australians (in 1979), reducing sugar consumption has been there. The language used started out as quite strong, was modified due to industry pressure and has now been strengthened on the basis of more documented evidence (and in defiance of continuing industry pressure).

    The food industry monitors community attitudes and actions (they have more resources to do so than those of us working in public health) and when the industry reacts (as they did when people started reducing sugar consumption), it is usually because they have enough evidence to do so. The reaction from the food industry against curtailing promotions for junk foods and drinks is because they have enough ‘evidence’ that sales will be adversely affected. Their ‘evidence’ is not published in peer-reviewed literature but is sufficient for them to spend big money on ensuring they are not curtailed in any way.

  21. rory robertson says:

    WHO say reduce sugar consumption. Why? After all, the University of Sydney has documented “an inverse relationship” between sugar consumption and obesity: http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/quickquizresearch.pdf

    Moreover, “[T]here is absolute consensus that sugar in food does not cause [type 2] diabetes”: http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/diabetes.pdf

    Interestingly, the University of Sydney also charges food companies up to $6,000 a pop to stamp particular brands of sugar and sugary treats as Healthy: (pp. 10-11) http://www.gisymbol.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/GIF-Make-Healthy-Choices-Easier-Brochure-2014.pdf

    Some sort of formal investigation now is underway: http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/AFR-report-investigation.pdf

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