Bruce Sterling on Fri, 25 Apr 2003 10:59:27 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Delicious Sweetness

*"In America, the poor people are fat"

*Perhaps one can bomb the benighted foreigners into eating more sugar

*Contemplate the awesome wisdom of the USA bankrupting the WHO even as
SARS eats its way into the planet's lungs


GBN Global Perspectives
Gwynne Dyer

Sugar's Turn

    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influence to get the WHO-FAO report withdrawn, and 'sugar caucus'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-tyre 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 wanted
to 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.


Gwynne Dyer, Ph.D., is a London-based independent journalist whose
articles are published in 45 countries.For more on Gwynne Dyer, please
read his GBN interview

The Global Perspectives series is intended to challenge and provoke the
thinking of GBN members. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those
of GBN or its members. We welcome suggestions of other writers and
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These columns are archived on the GBN member web site at
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