The sugar deception: Why does the ABC bother?

I guess if anything was going to drag me out of semi-retirement on my little vineyard in Orange it would be yet another highly misleading story about sugar on the ABC, in this instance the Lateline program on Tuesday night. Why the ABC, my preferred source of news and current affairs, bothered to essentially repeat the same biased story about sugar it ran two years ago on Radio National is beyond me.

Again, the focus of the ABC story was a former economist who gave up sugar and lost weight. Yes, I know, anecdotal evidence. And yes, if he had given up fat he would have lost weight too, or starch or alcohol. Cutting down on calories does induce weight loss. However, the man’s personal experience was with sugar and having been enlightened he apparently embarked on a mission to rid the Australian diet of the root of all evil.

But he had a problem: Australia’s leading expert on carbohydrates and health, Professor Jennie Brand-Miller from the University of Sydney, was not overly concerned about sugar. Her view was that health effects of carbohydrate-rich foods were related to their blood sugar-raising potential or glycaemic index. Viewed through this perspective, foods rich in refined starch, which strongly raise blood glucose, may be just as bad, or even worse, than foods rich in sugar. Despite considerable scientific support such permissive views on sugar could not be tolerated so a kind of fatwa was issued: Brand-Miller had to be beheaded, in a profession sense. And the ABC and the economist have been after her ever since.

Again, the latest program examined a paper written by Brand-Miller and Dr Alan Barclay called the Australian Paradox in which these authors observed that while obesity rates in Australia have climbed in recent decades, sugar consumption appears to have fallen. But why trawl through this paper again now? For goodness sake, it was published five years ago.

Journalistic deception

Had the public interest been Lateline’s key concern, the producer might have asked a simple question: have any new studies been published that might inform the issue? As it turns out, new studies have been published that relate to all three lines of evidence that Brand-Miller and Barclay relied on in their paper – national dietary surveys, apparent consumption of sugar data and soft drink sales. The results of all three of these new studies are consistent with a fall in per capita sugar consumption in recent decades.

I am very familiar with the two peer-reviewed papers as I co-authored them. If the ABC had been interested in presenting a balanced story they could have given me a ring, but no such luck. They know I exist because Lateline flashed my photo up on the screen on Tuesday night. And at least one of their senior journalists, who featured on the Lateline program, is familiar with the recent soft drink data because I sent it to her the last time the ABC was intent on misleading the general public about sugar. Unfortunately, the data were withheld from the general public on that occasion, as they were this time around.

There is a name for the practice of deliberately withholding information so as to promote a view that a journalist knows to be incorrect. It’s called journalistic deception.

What about the ABS?

If the ABC didn’t want to talk to me at least they could have interviewed someone from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) which conducted the latest national dietary survey. The top line results from this study indicate a fall in the intake of total sugars since the 1995 survey, though better insight is on the way. The ABS has been busily analysing their data in depth, teasing out ‘added sugar’ from naturally-occurring sugar, and the results are due out in a fortnight.

Why didn’t the ABC interview the ABS? Or just wait a couple of weeks for the release of the in-depth analysis? Why construct a story with stale, 5-year old news that had been covered before when a real story, backed by strong new evidence, will present itself in a couple of weeks? Maybe Lateline got wind of the results.

Furious agreement

In lieu of balance, Lateline interviewed six experts who all agreed with one another – shades of the infamous Catalyst programs on cholesterol. The Australian nutritionists interviewed essentially argued that they just don’t believe the available data on sugar intake. They couldn’t highlight any other sugar consumption studies, it was just a case of ‘spare me the evidence; my mind is made up.’ Such is the parlous state of public health nutrition in Australia that some of its senior players are prepared to advocate policy based on denial of the scientific evidence.

Tellingly, the two authors of the Paradox paper, the editor of the nutrition journal that published it, the professor from the University of New South Wales who reviewed the complaint about the Paradox paper and the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney all declined to be interviewed by Lateline. It would appear that the ABC’s reputation for bad nutrition stories had preceded it.

What are the motives?

I suspect those who pitched the story to the ABC were intent on discrediting Brand-Miller and Barclay one more time before the release of the comprehensive ABS analysis of sugar in the Australian diet. These new data will find their way into the updated version of the Australian Paradox paper, which was required as part of the review of the complaint against its authors. With all key lines of evidence likely to show no parallel between sugar intake and obesity trends it would appear that Brand-Miller and Barclay’s argument will prevail. The media strategy seems to have been to hit them while they are still vulnerable.

But why would Lateline accept such a poisonous pitch? What’s in it for the ABC? Surely there is not much journalistic kudos to be gained from recycling old stories.

My guess is that the ABC shares the interest in ‘food politics’ of many of the more radical public health nutritionists, with its strong anti-corporate sentiment. This requires that the food industry be attacked at every available opportunity – sugar being the current weapon of choice. No doubt the next objective is the imposition of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages but if this particular battle is to be won sugar has to be seen as a BIG health issue, even though it isn’t. The public relations people call this ‘perception management’.

Personally, I would have thought that the ABC’s role was to report on food politics rather than engage in it.

This article reflects my personal views. It was not commissioned or paid for by anyone.


13 thoughts on “The sugar deception: Why does the ABC bother?

  1. I’m so pleased you found the time in what sounds like a rather blissful semi-retirement to provide some insight into this report. I was also wondering why the ABC needed to report on this topic when there didn’t seem to be anything new to discuss.
    The ABC has been my trusted source of journalism for some time, but like you I am starting to question that faith. There was a recent report on Glyphosate and its listing as a probable carcinogen. Once again, there was nothing new to report, but they did interview a lady who was worried about her garden. Is this seriously the best the ABC can do?
    I wonder what foods this man stopped eating and what they were replaced with. Good on him for losing weight, but that is one person’s experience. My local radio station did a story today on grocery prices in a local Aboriginal community. Items available were over twice what is charged in a major centre 150 km away. How is a sugar tax going to help make fresh fruit and vegetable more affordable in remote communities? Will the money raised go directly into programmes that will have a direct impact on those who are at risk or already obese? I have worked in rural communities and the issues involved are far more complex than simply cutting out sugar. Will the money raised fund and help retain dieticians and other support services in these communities? I sincerely doubt it.
    All the best with your new career and may I suggest you leave the radio and television off as you sit with a new glass of wine at the end off the day.

  2. Another brilliant article. As a proud “out there” skeptic – I applaud your article. It seem there was a place for radical journalism back in the 60s and 70s – the ABC took it to heart and now see themselves as “social crusaders” rather than “reporters of facts” – and as such are pandering to what the prevailing belief is rather than being neutral observers. Well done Sir. A sad comment on the state of affairs from the ABC who should be above all – strictly neutral and chasing down the FACTS,

  3. Id love to say Geoff that Bill presented all the facts in his study , but as he admitted at the time, full data on all sugar related sources from drinks, cordial..milkshake..redbull …Gatorade… slushies ? was not present at the time and omitted or was that just convenient hmm.
    And lets not get into added sugar food sources…but….anyway….
    One wonders how a study can be released with only 60% of the figures present and make a bold statement that its fact.
    If your going to report on sugar consumption for the nation , one should expect such an esteemed expert to gather all evidence before releasing to the market.
    I find it quite interesting that many of the world’s leading cardiologists and other medical professionals all are saying the same thing in respect to sugar and for that matter carbohydrates …there is way too much in an individual daily diet.
    Bill…I agree that 1 teaspoon of sugar doesn’t have an effect but on a daily basis we consume much more than that and that’s not taking into account the glucose response of carbohydrates as well that adds up as well.
    If Jennie says carbohydrates are more the culprit , then why haven’t we seen daily carb targets reduced to 2-3 serves per day instead of the 6-11 from advice from you and jennie directed to dietitians association of Australia?
    If sugar really doesn’t play such a problem with obesity and other diseases, then you must follow up claims with human clinical trials showing and proving beyond doubt that you’re claims are correct.
    The Dr’s and medical professionals around the world await with bated breath Bill…cause as yet your theory hasn’t been clinically proven …

    • Hello Rob
      The three lines of evidence currently available suggest that sugar intake is in decline. But as I noted in my post the best data will be released in a fortnight or so. This should give us insight into trends in total sugars, added sugars and naturally occurring sugars.
      You ask why we have not seen changes to the current high carbohydrate intake recommendations. Answer: Because the NHMRC hasn’t conducted the necessary scientific reviews or reviewed Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range for carbohydrate. This should have been done before or in conjunction with the dietary guidelines process.
      Nutrition policy in Australia is in a mess.
      Regards, Bill

  4. If chaps like Rory Robertson and Pete Evans and their readers are giving up sugar and losing weight, and noot drinking soft drink, behaving much as health or weight conscious people have always behaved, what is happening to the rest of the population who continue to consume sugar? If they were also losing weight, or weight-stable, there would be no obesity epidemic, and fewer overweight people. Per capita consumption can never tell the full story. Someone is eating all the sweets and drinking all the soft drink, and they have a problem.

    • Hello George
      Eating less nutrient-poor, sugar-rich food will assist weight control and improve cardiometabolic health. But so will eating less nutrient-poor, starch-rich food and less nutrient-poor, saturated fat-rich food. We should be encouraging all three, not just one.
      There is a commercial driver behind the anti-sugar/anti-carb movement – to increase consumption of coconut oil – and it has been very successful. Whenever you see an anti-carb campaigner it is always interesting to note whether they also recommend an increase in consumption of saturated fat. This is not science; it’s marketing.

      • In the old days it was easy – people ate such high-fat diets that all they needed to do to lose weight was cut out most carbohydrate. They didn’t need to increase fat in real terms, only as % of energy, as Stock and Yudkin showed in 1970.

        Today, fewer people who are overweight are eating enough fat to do this without excessive hunger. So a little extra is probably wise. And people who aren’t overweight, and want to improve some other aspect of metabolism by avoiding sugar and starch, will indeed need to keep calories more or less the same by eating more fat. (There’s no such food as saturated fat, although it’s easy to buy pure sugar)
        It”s an interesting idea that the coconut plantations are now the main business threat to the sugar plantations.

  5. Hi Bill,
    Carbohysteria is still alive and well in Australia. I think it’s worth pointing out that Rory Robertson is still beating his chest on this issue and here we are years later still giving him airtime in the mainstream media. In 2014, I agreed to sit down and have a chat with Rory to get his side of the story. I can say that, on a personal level, I think he’s a nice guy and he honestly believes what he preaches with near religious fervour. I pointed out to him that whilst it’s true he lost a lot of weight by cutting out refined sugar, it was likely more to do with replacing empty calories with nutrient dense ones. But to no avail, that wasn’t going to cut it. Sugar was the enemy and there was no wavering in that view. I, for one, will be happy to see this matter put to rest….for now….until the next nutrient controversy!

    • Hi Bill
      I actually have reservations about the amount of carbohydrate (45-65%E) recommended by the NHMRC. Both boundaries are too high in my view. But saying the problem is sugar is too simplistic – both refined starch and sugar appear to have similar effects on cardiometabolic health. Why focus on one and ignore the other?
      One problem we have at present is a dearth of scientific leadership on carbohydrates. The NHMRC made two big mistakes in the development of the last dietary guidelines – the failure to review saturated fat and CHD (which would have shown CHO conferred similar risk to saturated fat) and the failure to review the role of glycaemic load in chronic disease, especially type 2 diabetes and CHD.
      The Heart Foundation used to lead on these issues but seems to have gone to sleep.
      And when people like Brand-Miller speak authoritatively they get attacked.
      We live in interesting times.


    Very interesting new study that is showing its our gut bacteria which determines whether we tolerate high GI or low GI foods and thus individual needs are different. Gut bacteria testing could b new frontier to determine which foods need to be added or subtracted to gain optimal health and vitality and help propergate a healthy gut family…

  7. Hi Bill,
    This article has some valid points, and it frustrates me too, to no end when relatively old information is re-presented, often leaving out pieces of the evidence. However, I find this article very disappointing. It comes from a negative standpoint and doesn’t present any new or useful information (much like you are stating of ABC). I think dietetic professionals need to be very careful about how any industry associations shape their thoughts, research, recommendations and media image.
    As a health professional I like to base my practise on the modern Hippocratic Oath ‘first do no harm’. While I agree that sugar isn’t the sole contributor to obesity and other health problems (just like no one nutrient is) I cannot see any negative nutritional outcomes to encouraging people to reduce added sugar in beverages and processed foods (unlike cutting out other things, such as legumes when on the paleo diet which does have potential outcomes).
    As your links with the sugar industry are unhidden, articles like this provide a very easy target for people already feeding on speculation (which is sometimes not just speculation) that many dietitians don’t have people’s health, but rather their own agendas in mind.
    I’m not trying to ‘attack the food industry’ in anyway, however, I am concerned about the public image of dietitians and the future of the profession. There are enough issues for dietitians to deal with, without also having to deal with the public’s view of dietitians and the DAA as having sold their sole to the corporate world.

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