There’s an industry selling a product that is bad for one’s health.
A generation ago that industry was tobacco and its product was cigarettes.
Today it is the food and beverage industry and its product is sugar – sugar that is being added to food and drink.
After 20 years working in tobacco control, Jane Martin, executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, a policy think tank of the Cancer Council Victoria, has taken up the battle against sugar-laden food and drinks.
She charges that the food industry has borrowed the corporate playbook of the tobacco industry to fend off regulation.
“The sugar industry has been very similar to the tobacco industry in how they work,” she says.
“They fund their own research studies and criticise research they see as harmful. They focus on personal responsibility, saying it’s up to parents and the individual.”
But the parallels don’t stop there.
“The tobacco industry pushed self-regulation over legislation. And now we have self-regulation around marketing to children of junk food and drinks, which is exactly what the tobacco industry got away with.”
Added sugar – not natural sugars that exist in fruits and vegetables – is everywhere.
One of the largest sources is beverages such as soft drinks, energy drinks and fruit drinks.
But a stroll though the supermarket shows that there is added sugar in bread, yoghurt, peanut butter, soup, wine, sausages – indeed, in nearly any processed food.
A single tablespoon of tomato sauce can contain a teaspoonful of sugar. This ‘invisible sugar’ comes under many names.
For example, there are more than 40 different names for sugar listed on food labels in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, ranging from ‘agave nectar’ to ‘high-fructose corn syrup’ and ‘molasses’, along with a whole host of names you will have never heard of.
According to Lisa Renn, an accredited practising dietitian, sugar has a range of purposes in food manufacturing.
“It’s not only used as a sweetener, it’s used as a colouring for food consistency and as something to hold the ingredients together,” she explains.
“Having small amounts of sugar in moderation is OK. But large amounts every day are not good. Soft drinks have become the new water.”
Dr Robert Lustig, a paediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and a world leader in the anti-sugar campaign, points out that sugar consumption worldwide has tripled in the past half-century.
“Our food supply now contains so much added sugar that our metabolic (energy-processing) systems just can’t handle it,” he says.
“Your body does different things with different types of calories. Fructose (added sugar) in quantities eaten today primarily gets stored as fat. Usually, that fat will go to your belly.”
And the danger to our health is not just obesity: there is evidence linking sugar to liver disease, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay.
Nevertheless the food and beverage industry continues to promote sugar with extensive advertising of its sugary products.
It also spends large sums of money opposing clearer labelling of its products, as well as fighting increased taxation on sugary foods and drink.
Hundreds of millions of dollars is spent each year promoting unhealthy foods – those high in sugar and/or fat.
As well as advertising in conventional media, the industry also invests heavily in sponsoring sports events, product placements on TV shows and Facebook marketing – all the places likely to reach children.