Big Sugar Flexes Its Muscles

Image Credit: Sally Plank

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends we reduce our consumption of salt, trans fats, saturated fats, and added sugars. Why? Because consumption of such foods is the cause of at least 14 million deaths every year from chronic diseases.

“Several decades ago, it was heresy to talk about an impending global pandemic of obesity.” Today, we’re seeing chronic disease rates skyrocket around the world. The Western diet has been exported to the far reaches of the planet, with white flour, sugar, fat, and animal-based foods replacing beans, peas, lentils, other vegetables, and whole grains.

In order to understand the reasons underlying this trend toward greater consumption of animal products, sugar, and oils, and reduced consumption of whole plant foods, we need to begin by understanding the purposeful economic manipulations that have occurred since World War II relating to agricultural policies around the world. For example, since early in the last century, the U.S. government “has supported food production through subsidies and other policies, resulting in large surpluses of food commodities, meat, and calories. In this artificial market, large food producers and corporations–Big Agriculture and Big Food–became very profitable.” Their profitability may be part of the problem.

Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, gave the opening address at the 8th Global Conference on Health Promotion. One of the biggest challenges facing health promotion worldwide, she said, is that the efforts to prevent our top killers “go against the business interests of powerful economic operators.” It is not just Big Tobacco anymore. “Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda, and Big Alcohol. All of these industries fear regulation and protect themselves by using the same tactics…front groups, lobbies, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits, and industry-funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt.”

And the World Health Organization should know. In 2003, the organization released a draft report that outlined a global strategy to address issues of diet. Although many of the WHO’s recommendations were rather tame, a remarkable series of events was spurred by six words in the report: “limit the intake of ‘free’ sugars” (added sugar). Within days, the sugar industry, through the Sugar Association, enlisted the support of officials high in the U.S. government and led a vigorous attack on both the report and the World Health Organization itself, culminating in a threat to get Congress to withdraw U.S. funding to the WHO. The WHO, the organization that “deals with AIDS, malnutrition, infectious disease, bioterrorism, and more, threatened because of its stance on sugar.” At the same time, the U.S. went to bat for American tobacco companies and led the charge against the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

As discussed in my video, Big Sugar Takes on the World Health Organization, the threat from the sugar industry was described by WHO insiders as worse than any pressure they ever got from the tobacco lobby. As revealed in an internal memo, the U.S. government apparently had a list of demands. These included deletion of all references to the science that WHO experts had compiled on the matter and the removal of all references to fat, oils, sugar, and salt.

The threats failed to make the WHO withdraw their report. Entitled “Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Disease,” it “concluded that a diet low in saturated fat, sugar, and salt and high in fruit and vegetables was required to tackle the epidemic rise in chronic diseases worldwide.” They did end up watering it down, though. Gone was reference to the comprehensive scientific report, and gone was its call for its recommendations to be actually translated into national guidelines.

History has since repeated. At the last high-level United Nations meeting to address chronic diseases, representatives from some Western countries, including the United States, helped block a consensus on action after lobbying from the alcohol, food, tobacco, and drug industries. When asked why Michelle Obama’s successful childhood obesity programs in the U.S. should not be modeled around the world, a U.S. official responded that they might harm American exports.

If sugar is bad, then what about all the sugar in fruit? See If Fructose Is Bad, What About Fruit? and How Much Fruit Is Too Much?.

For more on the corrupting political and economic influences on nutrition, see videos such as:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

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