Ruminations

Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Sugar's Bum Rap

"According to the World Health Organization ... diet-related disease is the leading cause of death, period."
"When studies are conducted with funding from organizations that have a vested interest in the outcome, they sow doubt, they sow doubt with public policy-makers."
Bill Jeffery, Centre for Science in the Public Interest

"If we want to change public health, we have to work with the agri-food industry. It's the delivery system."
"To say 'We're not going to talk to you and we know better' is frankly nuts."
Harvey Anderson, nutrition scientist, University of Toronto

"I think we will eventually see researchers say, even if the money is tight, 'We just can't take this because it's got too many strings."
"History won't look kindly on some of the funding of the food industry in both research and public-health organizations."
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, Ottawa obesity specialist

"These companies are full of really smart people and they have risk managers and they're only going to fund research that they think will work for them."
"They pick winners."
 Dr. John Sievenpiper, nutrition-science professor, physician, University of Toronto
Video thumbnail for CDC: Toddler Foods Have Too Much Salt, Sugar
Centres for Disease Control: Toddler foods have too much salt, sugar added

The all-consuming question is how responsible is the consumption of sugar for the prevailing and growing obesity dilemma facing modern society? In developed countries of the world food is plentiful, readily obtainable, relatively inexpensive. Not only nutritious whole foods, but unfortunately food that has been processed well beyond its original state, mostly for the convenience of consumers, whether they buy that processed food at fast take-outs or at the supermarket to hasten meal preparation at home.

At one time in human history food was scarce, its abundance mostly in the hands of those who had wealth, and whatever was available did not reflect the vast array we see now representing the produce grown and harvested from around the globe and transported to international markets. Back in the days of scarcity people barely had enough food to consume to maintain life, which is to say a quality of life that equates with reasonably good health.

There's a burgeoning debate about the relationship between academia and industry amid an epidemic of obesity-related disease.
(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, FILE   There's a burgeoning debate about the relationship between academia and industry amid an epidemic of obesity-related disease.

There was no point in urging people to eat only as much as they needed, and to ensure that what they ate was nutritionally useful to body and mind. People ate what they could, when they could. And obesity was never a problem among the vast majority of any population. But among the minority who had disposable wealth and was able to take advantage of and consume quantities of the finest food available at the time, it was a sign of wealth and pride that those were the overweight and obese upper-class.

This is a social phenomenon that has taken centuries to reverse, but reverse it has. Now the overweight and the obese represent the general population, while the better educated, wealthier minority tends to be knowledgeable about health priorities and the long-term benefits of eating well and eating wisely. If one word could equate with those benefits it would be 'moderation'. The very fact that food is so accessible and that processing has 'improved' taste with added fat, sugar and salt is injurious to health.

Eating that compromised food in excess is a certain formula for future health problems, serious ones; in health compromised to the extent that the quality of life is radically reduced, and longevity is as well. So, that question again: does sugar make us fat? does require an answer. And the most sensible answer to that is no, it does not, although consuming immoderate amounts of sugar and sugar-laced foods will certainly help to put on excess weight. The key is moderation, as it is in all matters.

Dr. Sievenpiper is an expert in nutrition with a global reputation in the field of nutrition science. And, he represents a small group of Canadian academic scientists who have accepted hundreds of thousands in research-funding from commercial food manufacturing sources -- soft drink, packaged-food and the sugar industry -- to turn out studies and opinion pieces often reflecting the interests of those businesses.

But not by design, he says. He is quite capable of compartmentalizing the funding source and the research findings; grateful for the funds, but scrupulous to ensure that the funds and the self-interest of the funding bodies do not influence his findings in any way. But the very fact that a scientific researcher into a sensitive topic such as nutrition will accept funding from corporations who stand to gain if research supports their needs, tends to taint any resulting research findings.

Even if the research itself has not been compromised by association, the perception will always be there that this is precisely what has occurred. The University of Colorado plans to shut down its anti-obesity centre in response to the fact made public that it received over a million dollars from Coca-Cola Co. Those responsible at the university who found that funding irresistible were more than likely also irresponsible not to make that link beforehand.

AP Photo/File
AP Photo/File   A nonprofit founded to combat obesity says the $1.5 million it received from Coke has no influence on its work. But emails obtained by The Associated Press show the worldÂ’s largest beverage maker was instrumental in shaping the Global Energy Balance Network.
 
Coca-Cola has provided over a quarter-million in donations to University of Toronto researchers in the past few years, $50,000 of which was earmarked for a child-nutrition centre. U of T faculty report funding for studies or fees for speaking engagements, consulting and travel from Pepsi-Co., Dr. Pepper-Snapple, General Mills and Archer Daniels Midland, one of the largest producers of high-fructose corn syrup in the world.

Dr. Anderson of U of T for example co-wrote a paper released in 2011 with four employees of Archer Daniels Midland which just coincidentally contradicted other research to find that fructose and other sugars are not linked to body mass or metabolic syndrome known to represent symptoms that have the effect of raising the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. In their defense, the scientists claim those financial ties arise through a need to increase scarce public research funding.

On the other hand, other scientists who challenge that claim, insist that the financing of research by self-interested commercial businesses creates bias and is never in the public interest. Dr. Anderson states in response that his research mostly has no relation to soft drinks or sugar; he looks into the benefits of foods like beans and tree nuts; his is a voice attempting to make itself heard that disease prevention can be achieved through improved nutrition.

Dr. Sievenpiper, for his part, is concerned that in singling out one diet nutrient such as sugars, people will tend to replace it with caloric sources that may be harmful, referencing the campaign that began decades ago for the reduction of fats in foods, replacing animal-sourced fats with industry-manipulated types. Now it's the replacement fats that have been singled out for avoidance as being detrimental to health.

Dr. George Bray, professor emeritus at Louisiana State University's Pennington Biomedical Research Center points out that Americans' sweetened drink consumption has risen to 50 US gallons per person annually. And that while consuming those liquid calories, people fail to take into account that if they use those products common sense should inform them that they should be cutting back in compensation calories from other sources, otherwise their total daily calorie consumption skyrockets, and the result is obesity.

There it is again: lack of balance and moderation, the Golden Rule. "I grant we may have poor eating habits [Americans]" he says, "but that is no excuse for what the beverage industry is foisting on us. I'm not an ostrich with my head buried in the sand." But that, really is the point; we have an obligation as responsible adults to inform ourselves about the food we eat and to restrain our impulse to consume more than we need. And we're not doing it; heads buried in the sand.

In all of this debate is there no room for personal responsibility, for self-restraint, for the common-sense approach to overeating and the dire consequences that result?

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