x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Despite sweet industry marketing, it's difficult to accept that sugar is safe

Companies that profit from the world's dangerous addiction to sugar are using aggressive tactics to convince consumers that it is safe.

Big Sugar. It's a term that could soon rival Big Tobacco in referring to concerted efforts to hoodwink consumers into believing a dangerous product is next to harmless.

Things are starting to get challenging for companies who thrive on much of the world's addiction to sugar, as evidenced by Coca-Cola's first anti-obesity TV advertisement, which has recently been broadcast on US television and can be viewed online.

With homespun images and a soothing voiceover, the ad shows healthy-looking people drinking Coke, highlights the company's 125-year history and outlines what it has done to address the problem (smaller sizes, healthy new drinks and cash gifted to good causes). It also clearly shifts blame onto the consumer, particularly with the inclusion of this reminder: "If you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you'll gain weight."

In a New York Times column entitled Coke Blinks, Mark Bittman writes of the effort: "In short, Coke wants to be part of the solution. Which is too bad for them, because one of the keys to avoiding diseases caused by metabolic syndrome … is to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages."

An "honest Coca-Cola obesity ad", posted anonymously hours later in response to the corporation's effort, points to the American Heart Association's recommendation that safe consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages be limited to no more than 450 calories a week, the equivalent of three cans of carbonated drinks, and asks viewers and consumers: "Imagine if tobacco companies said they were doing something responsible to protect you. How would you react to that?"

The conversation about sugar has recently grown distinctly noisy: what with a growing body of research linking consumption to diabetes, certain forms of cancer and, bolstered by new evidence that shifts the focus from fat, heart disease, as well as a host of other problems, including the range of chronic conditions known as metabolic syndrome.

But Coke is just one company. The truth is that its main ingredient has been the subject of calculated subterfuge for more than 40 years, as documented in a brilliant article in Mother Jones called Big Sugar's sweet little lies.

As the magazine lays out in painstaking detail, the Sugar Association was formed in the mid-1970s to address the first wave of public suspicion over sugar. The result was so successful that the costly campaign later won an excellence award in "the forging of public opinion".

The efforts continued over the decades with vigorous debunking of opposing scientific papers, debates reframed and experts effectively silenced.

Sugar was branded safe, which is how it remained for years. As recently as 2003, according to Mother Jones, the World Health Organisation bowed to Big Sugar pressure and backed down on a plan to recommend it be limited to 10 per cent of all calories consumed - a fraction of what was previously recommended.

There appears to be no stopping the tide or the regulations now, but all that heat has serious implications for this part of the world. When the public appetite for their product drops in the West, Bittman points out, corporations will look to the lucrative Middle Eastern market to restore consumption levels, just as Big Tobacco did before them.

No one could blame a consumer who has become confused by all the marketing directed at them so far. But it's hard to pretend that sugar is safe. As any parent knows, the harsh truth is that it can only take a sip of sugar-laden fizzy drink for a calm child to become supercharged.

The UAE's soaring rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other diet-related illnesses are well-documented, as are its residents' desire for sugar-laden food and drink.

Now more than ever, UAE residents need to wise up and take personal responsibility for their health. You simply cannot afford not to.

For funny and appalling sugar ads, check out this slideshow on motherjones.com