Is it just me or is Big Sugar starting to sound a lot like Big Tobacco?

Last week Coca-Cola wheeled out their version of a wholesome mum and a brand new website to “bust” the myths surrounding Coke. Putting aside the choice of Kerry Armstrong as a prime example of Australian mum-hood, the core messages were:

  • Caffeine is not addictive;
  • The link between metabolic syndrome (obesity, heart disease, diabetes) and Coke is not proven; and
  • Coca-Cola does not target its advertising at children.

As a former litigator on behalf of Big Tobacco, the spin gave me pause to reminisce. Not since those days have we been able to wallow in the spectacle of giant corporations spending large amounts of money convincing us that black is indeed just a somewhat less bright shade of white.

Any reader old enough to remember when the only thing that made a telephone portable was installing it in a car, will surely remember these gems from a forgotten age:

  • Nicotine is not addictive;
  • The link between lung cancer and smoking is not proven; and
  • The tobacco industry does not target children with its advertising.

I’m sure all of us are open minded enough to take Coca-Cola at their word on Caffeine. Everybody knows that we queue for hours to buy coffee just because we like the taste of hot, bitter water.

Equally, I’m sure we’re prepared to acknowledge that any child that happens to find a Coca-Cola ad appealing is some sort of aberrant juvenile misfit. Ads full of jiggling teenagers superimposed on a soundtrack of top 20 songs are clearly targeted at the over fifties.

But, small minded though I probably am, I can’t swallow the line that a food whose only constituent (besides water) is sugar is not proven to cause disease. Dr Reeves over at The Beverage Institute for Health & Wellness (BIHW) would no doubt take issue with my ill informed ignorance.

The doctor wants a “randomized controlled trial … that actually proves that consuming soft drinks causes metabolic syndrome” before she signs on to this mad idea that sugar makes you fat. I’m sure that the fact that the BIHW was established and funded by Coca-Cola has nothing to do with her perspectives on the matter at all.

Well, good news Dr Reeves, your friends over at PepsiCo have just paid for such a study to be done. The 28 June issue of New Scientist reports that Peter Havel at the University of California persuaded 33 overweight and obese people to try a 10 week diet which was either 25 percent fructose or 25 percent glucose.

Fructose and Glucose are the two building blocks of sugar. Previous work had observed that sugar was very bad news. This experiment was about figuring out which bit was doing the damage in humans.

Those on the fructose diet ended up with increased (1.5kg) tummy fat, higher fatty triglycerides (which leads to heart disease) and 20% higher insulin resistance (which leads to Type II Diabetes). None of this happened to the group on glucose.

Perhaps the result wasn’t quite what PepsiCo was expecting because they clearly had to scratch around in the bottom of the marketing spin barrel to come up with this response:

This is a very interesting and important study, but it does not reflect a real-world situation nor is it applicable to PepsiCo since pure fructose is not an ingredient in any of our food and beverage products.

Bravo! A clear contender for this year’s “every cloud has a silver lining” public relations award. It’s a pity our digestive systems don’t see things quite the same way as the folks at PepsiCo.

In a separate study, Havel’s team took a look at whether you needed to be eating “pure fructose” or merely something which contained it (like sugar). They compared the immediate effects of consuming meals containing equal quantities of sugar, pure fructose or pure glucose. Blood triglyceride levels were all elevated to a similar level 24 hours after consuming fructose and sugar but not glucose. So it doesn’t seem to matter whether you package the fructose up as sugar or eat it uncut, it will still give you metabolic syndrome.

I don’t see Dr Havel getting a gig at the BIHW anytime soon, do you?

Peter Fray

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