Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Too many hands in the sugar bowl

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."


Energy drinks do as much harm as drugs: Ban them from schools, urges health expert

These drinks do seem rather problematical  -- though less so than alcohol

Energy drinks are as harmful as drugs and should be banned from schools, according to a government adviser.

Drinks such as Monster, Red Bull and Relentless combine sugar and caffeine in such high quantities that children are becoming hyperactive and difficult to control.

Some 500ml cans contain the equivalent of more than 13 teaspoons of sugar and 160mg of caffeine – which is about the same as in four cans of cola.

Yesterday government adviser John Vincent warned: ‘Energy drinks are effectively another form of drugs.’

Mr Vincent, who co-founded the Leon restaurant group, is part of a team recruited by the Government to improve the nutrition of meals served to youngsters. He said: ‘The amount of sugar and caffeine in these drinks is in our view effectively allowing drugs into schools.

‘We don’t do that and neither do we think that should be part of school life. It has a hugely damaging effect on their ability to concentrate, how they feel and it is having health effects.’

X Factor judge Sharon Osbourne also said yesterday that she blamed energy drinks for a seizure suffered by her daughter Kelly last year. The 29-year-old spent five days in hospital after having a fit and collapsing.

And evidence from teachers and pupils is that children who drink these cans may report feeling sick, shaky and dizzy.

Ian Fenn, headmaster of Burnage Media Arts College in Manchester, has banned the drinks following requests from staff.

He told the BBC: ‘Staff came to me and said – at a school where we are very conscious about the nutritional value of what they eat – we cannot allow boys to bring in drinks that are really unhealthy for them and consume not one, but two or three.’

Claire Duggan, a schools public health adviser, said some children report feeling unwell after downing the drinks. ‘They say the rush that it gave them could be quite scary if you drank it very fast,’ she added.

The Food Standards Agency advises that children limit their intake of drinks that are high in caffeine. A spokesman added that consuming the drinks ‘could potentially lead to short-term effects such as increased excitability, irritability, nervousness or anxiety’.

Some children are even opting to have an energy drink for breakfast rather than a bowl of cereal. A survey published in the autumn found that one in 20 teenagers goes to school on a can of energy drink.

Brian Lightman, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘They are in no fit state to be in the classroom. They can be hyperactive, and it can have a very negative effect on their behaviour.’

The British Soft Drinks Association code of conduct states that energy drinks should not be sold in schools. But a Freedom of Information request last year found some academies – which have the right to opt out of national standards on school food and nutrition – were selling the drinks.

An association spokesman said: ‘We are clear that energy drinks are not recommended for children, and we want to get that message across to young people and parents.’


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