Government health advisors get busy with the fizzy
This is a story about why nothing is being done to stem the tide of added sugar and fructose in our food and drinks, even though organisations such as the UN are calling for public regulation and market intervention of the sweet stuff .
This is about the duplicitous use of language and its potential to manipulate.
This is not a story about how different sugars are metabolized. If you require an update on why sugar is abused, toxic in excess and a cause of chronic metabolic disease, read the scientific yet entertaining new book by Dr Robert Lustig .He has spent almost two decades studying its effects on humans and recently published research on the relationship between sugar and prevalence of diabetes .
A number of nutrition ‘experts’ who should know better declare it’s okay to consume added sugar, the ubiquitous “natural substance” as part of a “healthy balanced diet” – entirely dismissing the relevance of dosage, frequency of use and speed with which it’s administered. What is the matter with these people?
I’ll tell you what the matter is, and it has little to do with science…
Unless in denial or ‘addicted’ to sugar, they are simply apologists for Big Sugar. These include retailers, trade associations and a phalanx of organisations sponsored by Big Food, directly or indirectly. Their PR rebuttals vary according to the criticism. Typical lines range from the preposterous “there’s no such thing as an unhealthy food, only an unhealthy diet”, or a more dismissive “a fizzy drinks tax is a ludicrous way to tackle obesity” to the diversionary “more research is needed”. When finally confronted with said research, they simply deny it, saying “the research is more about sensationalism than science”, or it’s “bad science or no science at all”.
There is a name for such dissembling: it’s called ‘CokeSpeak’.
CokeSpeak: A sophisticated form of language containing half-truths dissembled as common sense. Its objective is to deceive the listener, usually for profit. (Source: http://cokespeak.org)
Whatever the merits of the arguments they use, Big Sugar apologists are at least engaging in a legitimate form of debate, the tedious but inevitable ping-pong between consumers and big corporations. Here is an overt declaration of interest, we know the participants and can judge for ourselves the degree of bias and veracity, reaching our own conclusions. This is pluralism and democracy in action, and it is up to us, the readers, to realise the bleeding obvious. And we, the public, have the Government to protect us, surely, in the form of the Department of Health.
It is more concerning when scientists voice their opinions as facts without declaring their own interests.
Expert scientists are supposed to be impartial and we generally trust their judgement. A recent piece in The Times newspaper (March 16th – letters) is a case in point, penned by Professor Ian A. Macdonald, MRC/Arthritis Research UK Centre for Musculoskeletal Ageing Research, University of Nottingham Medical School . Sorry to specifically pick on you, Prof, but here is a beautiful example of ‘CokeSpeak’ and we really ought to share it.
Professor Macdonald’s letter itself was a standard dismissal of Lustig’s research on the sugar time-bomb (mentioned above), and he cited unspecified ‘experts’ that disagreed with Lustig’s conclusions. His own conclusion, that since the issues surrounding obesity and metabolic disease are multifactorial, it is wrong to focus attention on one source of energy to the exclusion of others, reads as a truism. However, this tactic ranks high on the ‘CokeSpeakometer’ due to its combination of half-truths parading as common sense. I would argue that it is in fact perfectly logical to focus on one energy source if it is an important one that has previously been largely ignored, and especially so if habitually over-consumed.
Nevertheless, Macdonald’s letter reads as the epitome of common sense and reasonableness to the general public. A man involved in arthritis research is unlikely to have a hidden agenda, no particular bias, and his opinions likely to be scientifically objective. But then the question – why is he leaping to the defence of Big Sugar using such time-worn tactics? It transpires we really should know about ALL the good professor’s associations, before we swallow his syrup.
I was astonished to discover that Professor Macdonald is actually a member of the Scientific and Advisory Commission on Nutrition (SACN). This is the government quango that advises the Department of Health, and has direct input into government nutrition and health policies, including regulation.
Crucially, Macdonald chairs SACN’s Carbohydrate Working Group, which advises the Food Standards Agency on the health impacts of dietary sugar .
Macdonald lists his declared interests on the SACN quango website as including both Mars and Unilever. Delve deeper and we find his own employer, the University of Nottingham, recently signed a five year research agreement with Wahaha, the largest sugary fizzy drinks manufacturer in China . Furthermore, the US Experimental Research meeting, attended by those unnamed ‘experts’ Macdonald relies upon to make his case against Lustig, was convened by the American Society of Nutrition whose sustaining members include Coca Cola, McDonalds, Pepsico, Mars and Tate & Lyle .
And just to conclude matters, Ms Rhona Applebaum, the Vice President of the Coca Cola company tweeted links to Macdonald’s letter in the Times website directly after it was published .
In summary: what we appear to have here is the UK’s top sugar-policy influencer, on a government quango payroll, CokeSpeaking for Big Sugar interests in the press, being actively promoted by Coca Cola, whilst claiming to be engaged in ‘mere’ arthritis research. One wonders where, in all this, lie the health interests of consumers which Macdonald is paid to protect?
To be fair to Macdonald and some of his colleagues, having a conflict of interests is not a crime. Big Food must indeed employ or consult with nutrition scientists and nutritionists, whether they can remain impartial or not. But one has to wonder if the reason there is no disclosure of interests here is because there is something to hide? And it is perplexing that the national media feature such letters without the most cursory confirmation of the writer’s true credentials.
As for future government policy on the regulation of sugary food and drinks: we can safely assume that with friends of sugar in such high places, there will be no effective policy initiatives from the Department of Health any time soon. THAT’S why nothing is being done! In the meantime, we await further examples of ‘CokeSpeak’ from Big Sugar and its collection of Associated Allsorts.
For more examples of good CokeSpeak practice, how to recognise it and what to do about false truisms, crooked arguments and Mogadon words, please visit my good friend Alice in Wonderland’s site at http://cokespeak.org.
Martina Watts MSc Nut Med MBANT NTCC is a practicing Nutritional Therapist, author of “49 Ways to Eat Yourself Well”, and editor of “Nutrition and Addiction” and “Nutrition and Mental Health”. Visit www.thehealthbank.co.uk.
Rhona Applebaum, VP Coca-Cola Tweet:
 Moodie R et al.(2013). Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects of tabacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drink industries. Lancet. 381:670-79
 Lustig R, “Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar”, published by Fourth Estate, 2013
 Basu, Yoffe, Hills, Lustig (2013). The Relationship of Sugar to Population-Level Diabetes Prevalence: An Econometric Analysis of Repeated Cross-Sectional Data. Plos ONE. 8(2): e57873. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057873
 : “There’s no such thing as an unhealthy food, only an unhealthy diet…” Andrew Opie, British Retail Consortium
 Further examples can be viewed online using these google results: http://budurl.com/nobadfood
 Gavin Partington, Director General, British Soft Drinks Association http://www.politicshome.com/uk/article/72561/gavin_partington_fizzy_drinks_tax_ludicrous_way_to_tackle_obesity.html
 Press Release Mar19 2013, American Beverage Association
 http://www.sacn.gov.uk/pdfs/sacn_annual_report_2011.pdf (Annex 5, pp.26-30)