Sugar’s Turn

24 April 2003

Sugar’s Turn

By Gwynne Dyer

The tobacco industry waged a two-decade fighting retreat against the medical evidence that linked smoking to cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other illnesses. Millions died prematurely who might well have quit if the tobacco lobby’s PR people and tame scientists had not laboured day and night to fudge the issue and confuse the customers. Big Tobacco may now be facing its Waterloo in the United States, as the courts award bigger and bigger settlements to its victims or their survivors, but the long rearguard action did keep the profits rolling in for twenty extra years. And now it’s Big Sugar’s turn.

Last Wednesday in Rome the World Health Organisation and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation jointly launched an independent expert report on diet which stated, among other things, that free (that is, added) sugar should not exceed ten percent of the calories in normal daily food intake. The US-based Sugar Association has gone into overdrive to discredit the report, demanding that US Health Secretary Tommy Thompson use his influence to get the WHO-FAO report withdrawn, and ‘sugar caucus’ Congressmen are threatening to cut off the annual contribution of $406 million that the United States pays to the WHO if it doesn’t back down.

You have to admire the cheek of industry representatives who can maintain with a straight face that it’s perfectly all right for 25 percent of the average person’s calories to come in the form of free sugar, even as they have watched an alarming proportion of the US population turn into blubbery, lumbering Michelin-type men and women over the last generation. But then, if the pay was right they’d probably be willing to argue that 25 percent ground glass in the diet was all right.

Not that refined sugar is ‘white death’, as the purists would argue. Nobody’s trying to ban the stuff, and in moderate quantities it probably does no more harm than many other foods we eat quite happily. Nor is anybody trying to limit the amount that people consume: if you want sugar to be 50 percent of your caloric intake, no health police will come round from the WHO to stop you.

The WHO-FAO report just points out is that there is a relationship between the hugely higher modern levels of sugar consumption, and the wave of obesity that has swept over the developed world and is now reaching the poorer countries (so that you often get malnutrition and obesity in the same person), and the fact that the burden of chronic disease in the world is rising fast. Of the 56.5 million reported deaths worldwide in 2001, 59 percent were caused by chronic diseases.

Most people intuitively understand that there is a link between obesity and some chronic and ultimately fatal ailments like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases: you see a lot of very fat people around these days, but not that many very old fat people. The science is there to back these observations up, but people hardly need it. What is less visible is the link between excessive sugar consumption and obesity, because most of the sugar is consumed invisibly in the form of fast foods and soft drinks. And the sugar industry will do whatever it can to stop that link being made public and official.

This is not the first round in the struggle. Professor Philip James, the British expert who headed the International Obesity Task Force that wrote the first WHO report on diet and nutrition in 1990, discovered that the sugar industry had hired one of Washington’s top lobbying companies when it realised the expert committee was going to recommend a ten percent limit. “Forty ambassadors wrote to the WHO insisting that our report should be removed, on the grounds that it would do irreparable damage to the developing world,” he recalls, and there was also enormous pressure from the US State Department. But the WHO didn’t back down then, and it hasn’t backed down this time either.

The WHO assembled thirty international experts to draw up its report, including the leading US scientist on obesity, and it is in no sense an attack on sugar by the health nazis. It is about the health benefits of a diet that is relatively low in saturated fats, sugars and salt, and high in vegetables and fruits — hardly revolutionary stuff. Its recommended 10 percent limit on sugar intake duplicates guidelines that have already appeared in 23 different national reports. But if people followed those guidelines, a huge proportion of the sugar industry’s market would disappear, so of course it fights it.

It fights using the strategy that was pioneered long ago by the tobacco industry, and later copied by the industrial interests that wantedto deny the phenomenon of global warming. Set up one or more institutes with misleading names to throw doubt on the evidence — the International Life Sciences Institute, founded by Coca-Cola, Pepsico, General Foods, Proctor and Gamble, and Kraft, is now accredited to both the WHO and the FAO — and use the Washington lobby system for all it’s worth. Big Sugar will probably lose the argument in the long run, but twenty extra years of profits are worth fighting for. ‘Deceive and delay’, as President Bush said in another context.

The only odd thing is this. It is not the poor countries where people live from the sugar that are leading the fight. It is the sugar industry in the rich countries, where people are dying of it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Not that…diseases”)