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Tuesday 11 August 2015
How the Sugar Lobby Muzzles Journalists, by Joanna Blythman
I have received the inevitable letter from a body that calls itself Sugar Nutrition UK, from its Nutrition Communication Manager, a Dr Mary Harrington. She is perplexed by statements about the impact of sugar on health that I made in an article on breakfast cereals in the Daily Mail:
“I would therefore be keen to understand the research behind some of the statements… in particular, ‘It is now accepted scientific fact that eating too much sugar increases your chances of suffering from obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and liver problems’.”
Let me introduce you properly to Sugar Nutrition UK. Until this year, it was known as the Sugar Bureau, but it has renamed itself. The old title gave the game away: it is a lobby group for big sugar companies. Change of name notwithstanding, Sugar Nutrition UK continues to be funded by the same UK sugar manufacturers.
Would you trust such vested interests to give you an independent view of sugar and its impact on health? Would you trust it to give you advice on how to prevent children’s teeth rotting, for instance? Probably not, but some more gullible people might. After all, Sugar Nutrition UK now promotes itself as a reliable source of the latest nutrition research on sugars:
“Our job is to provide science-based and up-to-date nutrition information on sugars and health to academics, health professionals, media, public and Government.”
Sugar Nutrition UK doesn’t take kindly to journalists who dare mention to readers that sugar might not be very good for us. After all, it’s on a mission to improve “knowledge and understanding about the contributions of sugar and other carbohydrates to a healthy balanced diet”. Perish the thought that sugar should ever be considered unhealthy. The mission of Sugar Nutrition UK, of course, is reiterate that “no foods should be considered as ‘good or bad’ as all foods play an important role in the diet.” Does this sound familiar?
Sugar Nutrition UK goes further. It argues that not only is sugar not bad for you, you positively need it:
“Carbohydrates (including sugar) help to switch off hunger …… So boosting the level of carbohydrate-rich foods in the diet not only fuels your muscles, but helps to prevent overeating.”
Let’s be clear, Sugar Nutrition UK’s executive summary of sugar science is that sugar can be included ‘as part of a normal, healthy balanced diet’. Next thing we know, Dr Harrington and her colleagues will be presenting it as a health food.
I could invest time and energy in engaging with Dr Harrington. I could quote back to her the recent article in the highly respected journal Nature, entitled ‘The Toxic Truth About Sugar, wherein (independent) scientists conclude that an excess of sugar contributes to 35 million deaths a year worldwide, making us fat, changing our metabolism, raising blood pressure, throwing hormones off balance and harming the liver. Or I could refer her to any number of other pieces of research that testify to the damage sugar does.
But I choose not to waste time in pointless interaction with the PR wing of Big Sugar. It’s more important, I think, to explain how the sugar lobby tries to muzzle journalists.
Let me tell you about my last set-to with the UK sugar lobby. In a distinctly bullish manner, its representative wrote to the editor of a certain publication demanding that I provide scientific evidence to justify every statement I made in an article about the negative impact of sugar on health. He even asked, without any hint of irony, that I back up the statement that sugar can cause tooth decay. All this I duly did, at some length, and in time-consuming detail.
Not satisfied by my response, the sugar lobby representative in question then referred back the matter to my editor. This editor batted the complaint upstairs to the department that deals with legal affairs. It was already well acquainted with Big Sugar complaints as a result of the industry’s habit of stamping on any journalist, editor, or publication that dares to suggest that sugar is anything other than good for us.
Eventually, the sugar lobby gave up. But the Big Sugar strategy here was typical. Its lobbyists are paid to silence critics by keeping them tied up in lengthy, work-intensive exchanges of letters, constantly refusing to accept their very credible sources and demanding that letters ‘correcting’ the ‘misleading’ and outlandish notion that sugar isn’t good for you, be printed.
It’s a strategy that gets results. Knowing how combative and demanding the sugar lobby is, editors and journalists tend to self-censor, by avoiding the subject, or writing about it in a softly-softly, inoffensive way. To do otherwise, would likely mean getting caught up in a protracted, seemingly interminable battle. In other words, journalists soon get the message: ‘Don’t say anything negative about sugar. It’s more bother than it’s worth’.
I am reminded of Jason Reitman’s witty, black comedy, Thank You For Smoking, which starred Aaron Eckhart as a high-earning lobbyist for the tobacco industry. In the film, he is seen in cynical conversation with fellow professional lobbyists (for the alcohol industry and the guns lobby), debating who amongst them has the toughest reason and evidence-denying job. Reitman might well have thrown in a lobbyist for Big Sugar. He, or she, would have fitted right in, justifying his or her fat salary through sheer effort, if nothing else.