Break out the marching bands. Yesterday the Heart Association recommended that adult men should eat no more than nine teaspoons of sugar a day. If that still sounds like a lot to you, you’re not up with the times. The Food Investigators (SBS) recommend 32 teaspoons and even Food Standards Australia says it’s OK to gulp down 21 teaspoons every day.

Unfortunately, it’s the American Heart Association that has issued the new guideline. Here in the land of Oz, nothing’s changed. The AHA says that it made the change because:

High intake of added sugars is implicated in numerous poor health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

The AHA has clearly sniffed the wind and decided that a (policy) stitch in time saves nine (lawsuits). There are just too many lawyers in the US who would be more than happy to have a crack at helping a court understand disparities between public health advice and research evidence.

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One current example is a class action started in January this year against Coke in the US. The claim alleges fraudulent statements in the marketing of Coke’s new range of Glaceau Vitamin Waters. Coke’s advertising suggests that its drinks variously reduce the risk of chronic disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, promote healthy joints, and support optimal immune function. Whereas science suggests that the eight teaspoons of sugar in each bottle do exactly the opposite.

Meanwhile, back in the dark ages, we here in Australia base all our public health advice on something called the Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults published in 2003 by the National Health and Medical Research Council. Nestle and the Australian Heart Foundation referred me to those guidelines when I questioned the endorsement of Fruit Fix as a healthy snack. And Diabetes Australia-NSW pointed me that way when I queried its involvement in the The Food Investigators show, which told us we should eat those 32 teaspoons of sugar a day.

The Dietary Guidelines recommend that we get 15-20% of our calories from sugar. They base that recommendation on a 1994 meta-study, which concluded that the only ill effects of sugar consumption were likely to be dental cavities. That study based its conclusions primarily on four studies done from 1972 to 1992. Oh, and by the way, it was paid for by the American Beverage Association, an outfit not exactly known for its tolerance of anti-sugar messages.

Let me say that again, but slower. Australian recommendations on sugar consumption are based on a 15-year-old report paid for by Big Sugar. And that report is in turn based on research that is thinking about applying for its old-age pension. None of that would matter if just about every nutritionist in the nation didn’t base their advice on those antiquated guidelines. Or if Big Sugar didn’t use them as a perfect defence to their behaviour. Or if our own heart foundation and diabetes organisations didn’t blindly accept them at face value.

The American Diabetes Association moved in 2006 and now the American Heart Association has gone the same way. Both now say sugar is bad news for their respective constituents. You clearly don’t have to hit the AHA or the ADA over the head with a lawyer. They understand that it’s better to make sure your policy guidance matches what the research says now (rather than what it said in 1972). But the equivalent organisations in Australia are quite happy to keep trotting out Big Sugar’s company line.

It’s time for those responsible for the health of Australians to wake up and smell the (independent) research. In Australia, actions for chronic disease are limited to tobacco and asbestos poisoning. But it won’t be long before sugar is added to the list. The people we trust for health advice need to move before any more of us are suckered into a life of debilitating disease based on advice that is more than three decades old (and paid for by the sugar industry).

Yesterday, I contacted the Australian Heart Foundation and asked if they had any comment on the American Heart Association announcement. They responded with the sound of silence.

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As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.


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