Demonising particular foods or entire food groups in the interests of health and beauty is nothing new. In the 1980s, the demand for “low fat” or “no fat” foods ensured supermarket shelves were crammed with yoghurts, milks, cereals and snack foods labelled “FAT FREE!”, “DIET” or “LITE”. The remnants of this era remain today. Yet despite this abundance of diet foods and beverages, obesity is on the rise globally along with diseases and conditions rooted in poor diet and significant extra body fat.
As far back as the 1950s, the UK’s most prominent nutritional professor, John Yudkin had raised concerns with government and the food industry around the excessive use of sugar in foods and its potentially devastating effect on health when consumed in large amounts on a daily basis. The concern wasn’t with very obvious sources of sugar – such as lollies, cakes and desserts – but in everyday foods like bread, cereal, milk, canned or processed fruits, yoghurts, sauces, pasta and pre-packaged meals. Regardless of how healthy or simple people tried to keep their diet, the inevitability that their kitchen pantries and fridges were stockpiled with invisible but ubiquitous sugar raised significant alarm for health professionals and government.
Listen to Nick and Fiona tackle The Sugar Conspiracy on The Playlist:
But this alarm was smothered by a blanket of savvy PR tactics and multibillion dollar campaigns to silence critics of the food industry. As the investigation in the documentary The Sugar Conspiracy reveals, sugar proponents used methods similar to those employed by tobacco companies defending their products decades earlier.
In 1967, a study into the effects of sugar on heart disease risk factors was initially funded by the International Sugar Research Foundation (ISRF). But when results showed that high-sugar diets led to higher levels of fats in the blood, the ISRF withdrew funding and insisted the results remain secret. Yudkin had also discovered a significant relationship between sugar consumption and coronary disease. His experiments convinced him that it was in fact sugar, not saturated fat that was a greater danger in raising the risk of heart disease.
But the medical establishment continued to insist that it was fat, not sugar, that must be decreased to ensure good health. Yudkin’s assertions were labelled fictional, eccentric and unproven by fellow academics and sugar industry spokespeople.
In the past 30 years, global daily consumption of sugar has increased by 46% and added sugar is hiding in 74% of packaged foods. Worldwide, obesity levels have doubled to 600 million and diabetes levels have tripled to 347 million. So what role has the sugar industry played in this dismal reality? And what can be done about it?
Watch The Sugar Conspiracy at SBS On Demand: