Anti-obesity experts are targeting the practices of food companies around the world, writes Anne Penketh.

In the face of a soaring global epidemic of type 2 diabetes and obesity, the food industry is at last on the back foot.

The number of Americans living with type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and diet-related cancers now totals 117 million. Two thirds of adults and nearly one third of children in America are overweight or obese. In New Zealand, an estimated one third of adults and 11 per cent of children are obese, according to the Ministry of Health.

But the food multinationals are still denying any link between the added sugars in food and the explosion of these preventable diseases. In Washington, the industry is fighting proposed new dietary guidelines being prepared for the Obama Administration which would limit the amount of calories from added sugars to 10 per cent of Americans' diets. The recommendations from a scientific committee to the US departments of agriculture and health follow similar advice to governments from the World Health Organisation issued in March.

For decades the food industry has been pouring hidden sugars into our food. They tell us that if a generation of couch potatoes was more physically active, and if parents ensured their children had a balanced diet, the health problems could be averted.

Advertisement

In a letter to the US dietary advisory committee, the Sugar Association president, Andrew Briscoe, insisted "there is not a preponderance of scientific evidence" to conclude that added sugars are linked to serious disease or negative health outcomes.

But the line being put out by the food giants' marketing machine is being challenged.

In Britain last month, three medical experts went public in an editorial for the British Journal of Sports Medicine to explode the "myth" that obesity is caused by lack of exercise and a failure to maintain a balanced diet.

"This false perception is rooted in the food industry's public relations machinery, which uses tactics chillingly similar to those of big tobacco," which stalled government action by denying the links between smoking and lung cancer for 50 years, the experts wrote.

Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the non-profit Centre for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, plays down the suggestion that sugar is the new tobacco. "The difference is that there's no one product that kills you," she says.

But she points out that one can of cola can contain 130 per cent of the daily energy intake of added sugars - well over the 10 per cent recommended by the WHO.

The food companies themselves have taken some action. Pepsi Cola is trumpeting its drink Pepsi True in an ad campaign plastered all over the Washington Metro which announces that it contains "NO High Fructose Corn Syrup" - the cheap, heavily subsidised sweetener which has been widely added to food since the 1980s. Many obesity experts have blamed HFCS for contributing to the rise in obesity and diabetes worldwide. Wootan notes that "companies are putting in cane sugar instead of HFCS, promoting it as a healthier option" but she adds that "all sugars are equally bad".

Some US states are looking at legislation which would tax soda or slap health warnings about added sugars on the can.

There have been some obesity-related lawsuits, although nothing - yet - on the scale of the Big Tobacco trials.

Further afield, French lawmakers voted in early April to ban free refills of fizzy sugar-laden drinks from soda fountains in fast food chains and restaurants.

But the food industry marketing is powerful and subtle. The food giants spend billions every year on advertising.

A few weeks ago in Brittany, I listened to a 3-year-old French girl sing along to a ditty while watching a children's programme on TV: "chocolat, chocolat," she sang. If she's not careful, she'll be singing her way to diabetes.

Anne Penketh's novel, Food Fight, is out now on Amazon (Garstang Press print edition and Endeavour Press ebook)