Musings this week…sugar related.

I received a phone call this week from a Campbell Live reporter, asking if I could recommend someone who had recently cut sugar from their diet that they could interview for their upcoming news item investigating sugary beverages in the diet. I believe this is to be aired in the coming week to align with the FIZZ symposium (a conference reviewing the effects of sugary beverages on health) which is being held in Auckland. To be honest, I was quite excited. I had a couple of people who immediately sprung to mind: one client who I have been consulting with who had made major changes to his sugar intake and successfully lost 15 kg to date, and a client of a dietitian friend of mine, who’s dietary changes had not related in weight loss but reduced inflammation of the prostate. When I relayed the stories of both men to the reporter, there was not the anticipated enthusiasm that I expected. Fair enough, I guess he is not a health professional and likely wouldn’t recognise the significance of the information I relayed (though, as a guy, I thought he might be somewhat interested). After pausing for a bit he tried again ‘And what about people who have just cut out sugar?’ Initially I was a bit confused. “Oh, they did cut out sugar, a ton of it. However, this was not by just focusing on sugar per se, this was by focusing on eating less processed foods.”  He got it…but remained underwhelmed. Cutting out processed foods and recommending whole foods clearly wasn’t going to make for compelling viewing in his opinion. I wished him good luck for his story and hung up the phone.

It got me thinking. What was it, then, he was wanting to write about? In his mind, what did ‘cutting out sugar’ actually look like? Perhaps he’d read the article on Stuff that appeared last week suggesting that cutting sugar was the domain of the extreme dieter and he was looking for tactics that were a little more…extreme. Anyway.

Related to this, the release of a study that models the effect of a 20% tax increase on sugar-sweetened beverages on reducing premature deaths in New Zealand. There were some good questions raised on one of the author’s blog (Tony Blakely) as to how best allocate the additional revenue gained from this increase in tax. My concern has always been that a price increase hits those who are disproportionately represented in the adverse health statistics – people who are in the lower socioeconomic groups might consume more sugar beverages, but lack access to information as to why they should consume less. Any government intervention in this way, as pointed out by the authors of the paper, needs to occur as part of an overall government strategy to promote healthy eating. I really hope then that we get a change of government this year as let’s face it – prevention is not a priority for our current government.  Of course the other point raised was that industry could then focus on producing more zero-calorie beverages as a substitute for their full-sugared counterparts. A win-win, apparently. A Twitter conversation between Jamie and Anastasia of Whole 9 South Pacific and Tony Blakely addressed one of the questions that I was interested in – the author’s stance on the inclusion of artificially sweetened beverages in the diet and the health implications of such – revealed the willingness of the author to investigate the research more in this area. As an aside, this really does illustrate the power of Twitter and other social media platforms to allow people to engage with researchers about their work in real time. Better still to see people in Tony’s position welcome an opportunity to have a discussion and don’t shut down the conversation before it has a chance to start. The sign of a true academic. But I digress.

I’m a realist – the food industry is not going anywhere, so perhaps we should embrace this and work with them to find solutions (such as the zero-calorie beverage options). However sometimes it might appear that food companies are working to be a part of the solution (i.e. the smaller serving sizes, the artificially sweetened beverages, the muesli bars highlighting that they are ‘under 100 Calories’ on the labels) when in reality this just maintains their stronghold on our taste buds and our wallets. Money spent on diet soft drinks or mini-sized packets of corn thins is less money available to spend on fruit, vegetables, eggs and other sources of foods that actually contain nutrients. Further, anyone who has read Michael Moss’ book ‘Sugar Salt Fat’ will know what I’m referring to when I talk about the ‘bliss point’ – an optimal level of flavour in a food (combining fat, sugar and salt – depending on the food in question) whereby the level of deliciousness is almost (but not quite) at the point where it satisfies – hence we can’t stop eating it.* It’s what food manufacturers spend millions, if not billions, of dollars and years developing (click here for a good debrief). To be able to engineer a food that we crave is a much better business model than that which is designed to satisfy cravings – how else would you drive sales? As has been pointed out by Marion Nestle (and others) before: the food industry is not in the business of promoting health – they are in the business of making money. Therefore if we look to them for the solution to the chronic health crisis set to cripple both individual and population health, we run the risk of shooting ourselves in the foot.**

Sorry, Coke. I don't buy it.

Sorry, Coke. I don’t buy it.

Like the war against tobacco, the war against the food industry (and, in this case, the soft drink industry in particular) is undoubtedly going to be many years in the fighting. However, the recent media attention related to our sugar consumption serves to increase awareness of the impact that sugar has on the health of the population in general. If this encourages people to move away from processed food and embrace more of a whole food diet, then that can only be a good thing. Even if it doesn’t make for compelling prime time viewing.

*Interestingly this guy on his blog mentioned that the bliss point could also extend to TV serials, whereby the producers ended each episode at the exact moment that will be guaranteed to keep us hooked until next time. This explains why we get bored during a three hour movie, yet binge watch our favourite TV shows. As someone who has almost caught up on the entire series of Downton Abbey during three weeks over January, I am inclined to agree with him.

**Yes of course I realise this in an idealist perspective. However, it’s my blog so I’m entitled to put it out there :-).