Sugar villain in obesity battle

Last updated 13:05 11/02/2014

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OPINION: For all of the focus over the past couple of decades on fat - good fat, bad fat, fat kids, not to mention fat cats - there is growing belief among many food scientists that a greater villain in the battle against obesity is sugar.

The World Health Organisation last week warned of a "tidal wave" of cancer, saying restrictions on alcohol and sugar should be considered. It says half of the surging number of cancer deaths could be prevented by healthier lifestyle choices. There is, it adds, a "real need" to focus on cancer prevention by tackling smoking, drinking and obesity, singling out sugar's role in the global battle of the bulge.

Many scientists agree. The head of Amsterdam's health service, Paul van der Velpen, says sugar is the most dangerous drug of our time, and wants to see its use tightly regulated. That Amsterdam is well known for its legal cannabis "coffee shops" only adds context to his concerns.

One danger is sugar's addictive nature, he says. "It's just as hard to get rid of the urge for sweet foods as of smoking. Thereby diets only work temporarily. Addiction therapy is better," he says.

A group of New Zealand public health specialists and scientists are joining the fray. They have formed an organisation called Fizz, and are pushing for hefty, tobacco-style taxes on added-sugar milks, juices, soft drinks and energy/sports drinks.

Fizz will hold a two-day national conference next week, and no doubt the stats, case studies and anecdotes will be hefty. Listed among the keynote speakers is Californian pediatric endocrinologist Professor Robert Lustig, a long-time anti-sugar campaigner who refers to it as a toxin.

Whether the group's main aim - a tax on sugar - will gain traction remains to be seen. Successive governments have long appeared eager to find creative new ways to tax us, but Health Minister Tony Ryall is showing no interest in this idea. That's no surprise, given National's tendency to accuse its political opponents of acting as a nanny state for suggesting similar measures. Even finding political will to consider tobacco-style warnings on the most sugar-laden products seems a stretch.

However, as concern mounts about obesity - New Zealand has one of the worst rates of any nation - it would not surprise if the main parties did bring election year focus on real and meaningful ways to help fight it. One difficulty in adding special taxes to problem foods is the legislative difficulties in determining how widely to fling the net. Should fruit juice be left off the list, even if its sugar content is equivalent to coke?

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Regardless of any political skirmishing the Fizz conference would do well to appeal to the public heart and mind: particularly parents. It does no harm to repeat advice on the dangers of sugar, its insidious presence in so many food products - even some with healthy heart ticks - and the rapidity with which young taste buds can develop addictive cravings for the sweet and potentially deadly taste of fructose, at the expense of healthier food options.

- Nelson

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