Why our Food is Making us Fat

A very important article in the Guardian today, outlining only some of the issues with sugar.

 

 

 

 

... On average, in the UK, we are all – every man, woman and child – three stone heavier than we were in the mid-60s. We haven’t noticed it happening, but this glacial shift has been mapped by bigger car seats, swimming cubicles, XL trousers dropped to L (L dropped to M). An elasticated nation with an ever-expanding sense of normality.

 

 

Why are we so fat? We have not become greedier as a race. We are not, contrary to popular wisdom, less active – a 12-year study, which began in 2000 at Plymouth hospital, measured children’s physical activity and found it the same as 50 years ago. But something has changed: and that something is very simple. It’s the food we eat. More specifically, the sheer amount of sugar in that food, sugar we’re often unaware of.

The story begins in 1971. Richard Nixon was facing re-election. The Vietnam war was threatening his popularity at home, but just as big an issue with voters was the soaring cost of food. If Nixon was to survive, he needed food prices to go down, and that required getting a very powerful lobby on board – the farmers. Nixon appointed Earl Butz, an academic from the farming heartland of Indiana, to broker a compromise. Butz, an agriculture expert, had a radical plan that would transform the food we eat, and in doing so, the shape of the human race.

 

 

Butz pushed farmers into a new, industrial scale of production, and into farming one crop in particular: corn. US cattle were fattened by the immense increases in corn production. Burgers became bigger. Fries, fried in corn oil, became fattier. Corn became the engine for the massive surge in the quantities of cheaper food being supplied to American supermarkets: everything from cereals, to biscuits and flour found new uses for corn. As a result of Butz’s free-market reforms, American farmers, almost overnight, went from parochial small-holders to multimillionaire businessmen with a global market

 

[…]

 

By the mid-70s, there was a surplus of corn. Butz flew to Japan to look into a scientific innovation that would change everything: the mass development of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or glucose-fructose syrup as it’s often referred to in the UK, a highly sweet, gloppy syrup, produced from surplus corn, that was also incredibly cheap. HFCS had been discovered in the 50s, but it was only in the 70s that a process had been found to harness it for mass production. HFCS was soon pumped into every conceivable food: pizzas, coleslaw, meat. It provided that “just baked” sheen on bread and cakes, made everything sweeter, and extended shelf life from days to years. A silent revolution of the amount of sugar that was going into our bodies was taking place. In Britain, the food on our plates became pure science – each processed milligram tweaked and sweetened for maximum palatability. And the general public were clueless that these changes were taking place.

 

 

There was one product in particular that it had a dramatic effect on – soft drinks. Hank Cardello, the former head of marketing at Coca-Cola, tells me that in 1984, Coke in the US swapped from sugar to HFCS (In the UK, it continued to use sugar). As a market leader, Coke’s decision sent a message of endorsement to the rest of the industry, which quickly followed suit. There was “no downside” to HFCS, Cardello says. It was two-thirds the price of sugar, and even the risk of messing with the taste was a risk worth taking when you looked at the margin, especially as there were no apparent health risks. At that time, “obesity wasn’t even on the radar” says Cardello.

But another health issue was on the radar: heart disease, and in the mid-70s, a fierce debate was raging behind the closed doors of academia over what was causing it. An American nutritionist called Ancel Keys blamed fat, while a British researcher at the University of LondonProfessor John Yudkin, blamed sugar. But Yudkin’s work was rubbished by what many believe, including Professor Robert Lustig, one of the world’s leading endocrinologists, was a concerted campaign to discredit Yudkin. Much of the criticism came from fellow academics, whose research was aligning far more closely with the direction the food industry was intending to take

 

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The food industry had its eyes on the creation of a new genre of food, something they knew the public would embrace with huge enthusiasm, believing it to be better for their health – “low fat”. It promised an immense business opportunity forged from the potential disaster of heart disease. But, says Lustig, there was a problem. “When you take the fat out of a recipe, food tastes like cardboard, and you need to replace it with something – that something being sugar.”

 

 

Overnight, new products arrived on the shelves that seemed too good to be true. Low-fat yoghurts, spreads, even desserts and biscuits. All with the fat taken out, and replaced with sugar. Britain was one of the most enthusiastic adopters of what food writer Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, calls “the low-fat dogma”, with sales rocketing.

 

 

By the mid-80s, health experts such as Professor Philip James, a world-renowned British scientist who was one of the first to identify obesity as an issue, were noticing that people were getting fatter and no one could explain why. The food industry was keen to point out that individuals must be responsible for their own calorie consumption, but even those who exercised and ate low-fat products were gaining weight […] And no one was joining the dots between HFCS and fat.

 

 

Moreover, there was something else going on. The more sugar we ate, the more we wanted, and the hungrier we became. At New York University, Professor Anthony Sclafani, a nutritionist studying appetite and weight gain, noticed something strange about his lab rats. When they ate rat food, they put on weight normally. But when they ate processed food from a supermarket, they ballooned in a matter of days. Their appetite for sugary foods was insatiable: they just carried on eating.

 

 

According to Professor Jean-Marc Schwarz of San Francisco hospital, who is currently studying the precise way in which the major organs of the body metabolise sugar, this momentum creates “a tsunami” of sugar. The effect this has on different organs in the body is only now being understood by scientists. Around the liver, it coalesces as fat, leading to diseases such as type-2 diabetes. Other studies have found that sugar may even coat semen and result in obese men becoming less fertile. One researcher told me that, ultimately, perhaps nothing needs to be done about obesity, as obese people will wipe themselves out.

 

 

The organ of most interest, however, is the gut. According to Schwarz and Sclafani, the gut is a highly complex nervous system. It is the body’s “second brain”, and this second brain becomes conditioned to wanting more sugar, sending messages back to the brain that are impossible to fight.

The Sugar Association is keen to point out that sugar intake alone “is not linked to any lifestyle disease”. But evidence to the contrary appears to be emerging. In February, Lustig, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis of the University of California wrote an opinion article for the journal Natureciting the growing body of scientific evidence showing that fructose can trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity and a host of other chronic diseases, and in March, the New York Times reported a study that had been published in the journal Circulation, which found that men who drank sweetened beverages most often were 20% more likely to have had a heart attack than those who drank the least. David Kessler, the former head of the US government’s most powerful food agency, theFDA, and the person responsible for introducing warnings on cigarette packets in the early 90s, believes that sugar, through its metabolisation by the gut and hence the brain, is extremely addictive, just like cigarettes or alcohol. He believes that sugar is hedonic – eating it is “highly pleasurable. It gives you this momentary bliss. When you’re eating food that is highly hedonic, it sort of takes over your brain.”

 

 

In London, Dr Tony Goldstone is mapping out the specific parts of the brain that are stimulated by this process. According to Goldstone, one of the by-products of obesity is that a hormone called leptin ceases to work properly. Normally, leptin is produced by the body to tell you that you are full. However, in obese people, it becomes severely depleted, and it is thought that a high intake of sugar is a key reason. When the leptin doesn’t work, your body simply doesn’t realise you should stop eating.

 

 

Leptin raises a big question: did the food industry knowingly create foods that were addictive, that would make you feel as though you were never satisfied and always wanted more? Kessler is cautious in his response: “Did they understand the neuroscience? No. But they learned experientially what worked.” This is highly controversial. If it could be proved that at that some point the food industry became aware of the long-term, detrimental effects their products were having on the public, and continued to develop and sell them, the scandal would rival that of what happened to the tobacco industry

 

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The relationship between the food industry and the scientists conducting research into obesity is also complicated by the issue of funding. There is not a great deal of money set aside for this work and so the food industry has become a vital source of income. But this means that the very same science going into combating obesity could also be used to hone the products that are making us obese. Many of the scientists I spoke to are wary about going on the record because they fear their funding will be taken away if they speak out.

 

 

The relationship between government and the food industry is also far from straightforward […]

 

 

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg is currently planning to reduce soft drink super-sizing while last week, a former executive at Coca-Cola Todd Putman spoke publicly about the need for soft drink companies to move their focus to “healthy products”. But it’s not going to be easy to bring about change. A previous attempt to bring in a soda tax was stopped by intense lobbying on Capitol Hill. The soft-drinks industry paid for a new ward at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital, and the tax went away. It was a children’s obesity ward

 

[...]

 

 

Anne Milton, the minister for public health, tells me that legislation against the food industry isn’t being ruled out, because of the escalating costs to the NHS. Previous governments have always taken the route of partnership. Why? Because the food industry provides hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in revenue. It is immensely powerful, and any politician who takes it on does so at their peril. “Let’s get one thing straight,” Milton tells me, however. “I am not scared of the food industry.”

 

 

And I believe her, because now, there is something far bigger to be frightened of. Eventually, the point will be reached when the cost to the NHS of obesity, which is now £5bn a year, outweighs the revenue from the UK snacks and confectionery market, which is currently approximately £8bn a year. Then the solution to obesity will become very simple [...]

 

 

Read the whole article here.