The popular press has recently been awash with the hazards of fizzy drinks, fruit juices and the sugars they contain such as sucrose, fructose and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).1,2 The list of conditions which result from excess sugar consumption is depressingly long, and gets longer with each new study and each passing year. Nutritional Therapists have certainly been banging on about it for as long as I can remember.
The consumption of sugar has trebled worldwide over the past 50 years,3 closely tracking the obesity curve and significantly increasing the risk of liver damage, pancreatic cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. References to sugar addiction are no surprise either – or the famous lab experiments which showed that rats addicted to cocaine, when offered the option, preferred pure sugar as their narcotic of choice.4
Researchers at Oxford University have calculated that a 20% tax on sugary soft drinks would cut obesity levels by around 400,000.5 Some other countries where the authorities are rather more interested in the health of their children than the health of corporate balance sheets, have found sufficient cause for increasing legislation and taxation proposals.
Not in the UK, though. Just consider the messages put out by experts deciding on nutrition advice and policy in the UK. The Eatwell Plate 6 summarizes the main food groups and their recommended proportions for a healthy diet. It illustrates dietary advice by the Department of Health and was designed by the Food Standards Agency. If you look closely, you can find a red can of cola, a sizable bar of chocolate, assorted smarties, cake laced with icing sugar, a custard pie, sugared biscuits and a glass of fruit juice. These images are accompanied by the exhortation “…try and match this in your own diet”. After all, it’s all healthy and balanced, innit?
The sugar and soft drink industries PR machines may indeed be having a field day with our ineffective nutrition authorities, but they are somewhat alarmed by negative reports in the press. The British Soft Drink Association (BSDA) have clearly realized their position has weakened to the point where they cannot directly challenge the results of scientific studies, and so have adopted an alternative media tactic to counter the perceived threat to their profits.
BSDA media director Richard Laming is quoted as saying: “Soft drinks, like any other food or drink, can be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet, and there is no reason to tax them”.7 This reads as a reassuring statement of obvious fact – it oozes reassurance and common sense. But the subtext sets off a number of alarm bells: “No reason to worry chaps, relax, everything’s safe. We have official government approval, we ‘re on the Eatwell Plate!”
Someone is hiding something or I’m being sold something, the bells tell me, whenever I see or hear the phrase “ingredient x can be consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet”. The context is always the same: some chemical, confectionary or process which is attracting increasingly adverse media attention, is being wrapped up in the warm fluffy comfort blanket of a ‘healthy-balanced-diet’. It’s a standard propaganda trick, a semantic corruption or double-speak, that Laming and others have used many times.
It works because you gain ‘innocence by association’ since no one can reasonably attack the nice fluffy comfort blanket. Your product is now wrapped up cosily inside it. You no longer have to defend your own product – or political policy for that matter – on its merits, or challenge those pesky scientific studies, which can simply be dismissed as being ‘not in the context of a healthy balanced diet’. The goalposts have been moved, the basis of the argument changed, and attention has been displaced well away from the scientific ‘danger-zone’.
These comforting pronouncements on a balanced diet have gained the aura and popular authority of ‘common sense’. The phrase is so ubiquitous now, it has lost virtually all meaning. It lulls us to sleep and we don’t ask any awkward questions. Order is restored and the peaceful activity of increasing profits, measured in billions, may once again be resumed.
This is the 21st century version of Antonio Gramsci’s ‘cultural hegemony’.8 Gramsci, an opponent of Italian Fascism in the 1920’s, developed the concept whilst in prison. He attempted to explain how powerful groups in his society actually maintained their grip on the wealth and privilege they enjoyed unchallenged, whilst the majority of the suffering population quietly acquiesced.
Gramsci wrote that in order to maintain the comfortable status quo, you need to make your own culture, values and objectives sound like ‘common sense’ to everyone else. And to do this, you need to manipulate the language. If you think this is farfetched, I refer you to the website of the Corn Refiner’s Association who produce HFCS (http://www.sweetsurprise.com/hfcs-blog). Their “Sweet Surprise Blog” carries the title: “Where common sense meets science”.
So, let’s transport Gramsci’s ideas into the current arena of fizzy drinks and dietary advice and look at the BSDA statement again:
Soft drinks, like any other food or drink …
Not true. The fact as illustrated by recent studies, is that soft drinks are quite unlike any other food or drink (see below for references).
can be consumed in moderation …
Recent studies clearly show this is not the case – there is no datum of moderation, even relative modest short-term consumption has measurable and negative health impacts.9
as part of a balanced diet …
The latest studies also clearly show that the inclusion of soft drinks actively un-balances diet by altering food preferences adversely towards salty, fatty foods and yet more sugary soft drinks. It is therefore contradictory and logically quite impossible to include unhealthy soft drinks in a ‘healthy balanced diet’.
and there is no reason to tax them”.
Oh yes there is! All the sugary words in the BSDA’s PR lexicon cannot disguise the proven damage their products cause. Laming’s response can be decoded as a bland denial of scientific fact. Not quite as reassuring as it seemed on first reading.
The BSDA is apparently endorsing products for sale to children which are supposedly fine to consume ‘in moderation’ when a key effect of consumption is the loss of ability to moderate future consumption – with potentially catastrophic effects on their future health. I should think that a tax on such products is the absolute minimum political action required. Frankly, calling the police seems more appropriate.
Martina Watts MSc Nut Med MBANT NTCC is a practicing Nutritional Therapist and Editor of “Nutrition and Addiction: a handbook”, Pavilion Publishing Ltd or visit www.thehealthbank.co.uk.
- “Drinking fizzy pop for a month ‘can lead to lifelong health problems”, Daily Telegraph, 21.7.12
- “Tax and regulate sugar like alcohol and tobacco, urge scientists.” The Guardian,1.2.12
- Robert H Lustig, Laura A Schidt, Claire D Brindis (2012). Public health: The toxic truth about sugar. Nature. 482,27–29
- Lenoir M, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed SH (2007) Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLoS ONE 2(8): e698
- Oliver T Mytton, Dushy Clarke, Mike Rayner (2012). Taxing unhealthy food and drinks to improve health. BMJ 2012;344:e293
- John Naish, Special Report. “Having seen the evidence, I don’t touch fizzy drinks any more. Frankly, they are evil”. Daily Mail, 31.7.12
- Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart, 1971
- Sartor F, Jackson MJ, Squillace C, Shepherd A, Moore JP, Ayer DE, Kubis HP (2012). Adaptive metabolic response to 4 weeks of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption in healthy, lightly active individuals and chronic high glucose availability in primary human myotubes. Eur J Nutr. 2012 Jun 26. [Epub ahead of print]