Sugar leaves sour taste in Latta's mouth

Last updated 09:00 03/09/2014
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NIGEL LATTA: Focusing on issues affecting New Zealand.

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Nigel Latta's six-part series that focuses on issues affecting New Zealand drew to a close last night, with the series finale focusing on the effects sugar is having on the country's population.

In an episode which was engineered to let first hand experiences and evidence do the talking, Latta himself became a guinea pig while explaining to the viewer his initial assumptions and beliefs about sugar, and noting how they had changed once the facts were presented.

Latta began the hour by interviewing one of the world's most well known and outspoken experts on the subject, Professor Robert Lustig, an American paediatric endocrinologist at the University of California. 

Lustig cites liver fat, cell ageing, and interference with brain function in regard to eating habits as three of the things that, to him, makes it toxic. Lustig also compares sugar to tobacco in terms of its damage to people.

Latta took a stroll through the aisles of a supermarket to test Lustig's claim that sugar is being slipped into almost everything on the shelves. Latta was alarmed to find how high the volumes of sugar were in everyday products such as tomato sauce, baked beans, tuna and Marmite.

Food technologist Melanie Walsh explained that sugar is most often used as a substitute for more expensive ingredients which helps lower costs. Latta was surprised to hear that the product marketers have a lot of say in that area as a result, given their need to find ways to bring down the price of production and sale to the consumer.

Latta took the viewer through his typical breakfast menu, Friday night menu and exercise regime. He contrasted that with Angela, a young Auckland woman who lives almost exclusively on sugar and carbohydrates. Dr Mikki Williden, a registered nutritionist and senior lecturer at AUT University gave both a reality check, with Angela's diet increasing her risk of associated health problems later in life.

The health effects as a result of excessive sugar consumption were given a considerable portion of the hour. Latta visited Auckland's Middlemore Hospital, where 580 people get dialysis for kidney disease. The clinical head of endocrinology and diabetes, Dr Brandon Orr-Walker, walked the ward with Latta, detailing the massive annual cost to the taxpayer for someone on dialysis - some $50,000 to $100,000 per person per year for dialysis alone, excluding the other complications caused by kidney disease.

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Dr Orr-Walker also pointed out that most of those on dialysis could be working, so the costs from that would increase that total even more. The patients the pair spoke to both blamed their sugar consumption for their health situation.
The worst was yet to come, though. Latta spent time in Nelson Hospital's operating room where young children were having rotten and decayed teeth surgically removed as a result of consuming sugar-laden drinks.

Nelson/Marlborough District Health Board's principal dental officer Dr Rob Beaglehole stated that last year, 34,000 children under 14 had teeth removed, and that number is increasing year after year.

One young girl had six teeth removed in a three-hour procedure, which Dr Beaglehole said frankly, would cause her numerous difficulties later on, such as eating, socialising, and the inevitable need for future orthodontic work. Another 2-year-old being operated on had teeth which had dissolved down to the gumline and were bleeding before surgery began.

To get a view from the other camp, Latta spoke with the CEO of the New Zealand Food and Grocery council, Katherine Rich. Rich was quick to dismiss many of Robert Lustig's comments about the toxic nature of sugar, and stated that a fat tax or sugar tax had not made a big difference to obesity rates in places where they had been attempted, and pointed out that other factors such as overeating and lack of exercise also had a role to play.

Rich was also against government intervention, and made it clear that some factors are out of the government's control. She also pointed out that she wouldn't want to live in a country that was heavily controlled, and consistently advocated for the freedom of choice and personal responsibility. In contrast, Robert Lustig believed there wasn't an alternative, and the only way to enact change was through changes led by the government.

To add weight to his concluding belief that reducing sugar consumption has positive benefits, Latta visited Auckland's Yendarra School, where soft drinks are banned, and healthy school lunches are a regular thing. Principal Susan Dunlop believes the students are noticeably slimmer, a benefit also seen by Latta after his change in diet, and by Paraparaumu couple Maryanne and Gary. Both have lost a lot of weight, and Maryanne's susceptibility to diabetes has been nullified.

Latta and the experts he consulted ended the episode, and the series, by stating that the only way to slow the increasing torrent of people suffering from health problems induced by sugar consumption is to reduce or remove the sugar in our food. The group agreed that government intervention is necessary, even if it cannot cause change in all areas.

Though I have kept my personal opinions of Latta's findings out of this article, and my previous ones, I am happy to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed this television series. New Zealand's television and its locally produced content is often a waste of time and money, but the investigative journalism and documentary genres are our world class shining stars.

Broadcast funding agency NZ on Air granted funding to the tune of $749,787 for this series back in August 2012, and considering the other projects that receive funding, this series has been tremendous value for money. 

Media coverage for this series has been disappointing though, given the scale of the issues Latta tackled, and their impacts on the country in the past, present, and future. The online community has been especially vocal on this website, with over 460 comments on my previous episode articles (see related links on the left hand side), and on social media which has been pleasing to see. 

Let's hope that future television series of this nature garner more support, because in my opinion, the more of these series we see, the better.

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