by Dr Amelia Stephens
No thank you – I’m sweet enough.
Recently I was looking at attending a medical education event for GPs. These events are needed as we of course require ongoing education as part of our working lives. What is accepted as the ‘best practice’ in medicine changes rapidly – and as we know changes are being made all over the world in medical fields on a daily basis, as new things are ‘discovered’, or we become more aware of what we need to be doing for our health.
Now, I was quite impressed by the line-up of presenters and topics as there was a broad range and some good quality presenters that I recognised. I was all set to fill out my registration form until I saw some of the fine print, which made me quite uncomfortable.
This fine print was the ‘sponsors’ section of the event. These sponsors either finance part of the event or pay money to have a stall in a trade display that usually accompanies these events. These trade displays are usually where the food & drink is served so the doctors attending walk around and are exposed to their brands and products. I was not surprised to find the names of medical equipment & pharmaceutical companies there as their vested interest in having access to doctors is quite obvious. What did take me aback slightly was seeing ‘Sugar Australia’ as one of the sponsors.
Why would an Australian sugar company want or need to be targeting advertising towards Australian GPs?
The answer to this for me is obvious, so let’s explore a little further . . .
From observation, I have seen a lot more in the media lately & reflections from the people I meet about people changing their relationship with sugar, and looking at how much they consume as part of their diet. Media like ‘That Sugar Film’, and World Health Organisation recommendations have given people an opportunity to reflect on the amount of sugar that is in fact consumed, and how unnecessary most of it is. Statistics in Australia also show that sugar consumption appears to have decreased overall in the last 30-40 years. This decrease in consumption, therefore means decrease in demand, which would have a foreseeable impact on the industry producing sugar as a commodity. Importantly, it must also be said that simply because Australia’s consumption may have appeared to decrease overall in the past few years, it is still very much being consumed to excess.
This observed downward trend in sugar consumption is not necessarily the case in all countries, and excess consumption is certainly still contributing to ill-health across the globe.This includes contributing to the increases seen in NCDs (non-communicable diseases), including obesity and type 2 diabetes. NCDs have a massive impact on peoples’ quality of life, families & health systems all over the world. To give perspective, economic estimates in 2012 showed that expenditure on diabetes mellitus alone had the potential to bankrupt the National Health Service in the U.K. within 25 years.
There is no denying that increased sugar consumption contributes to this disease burden.
As part of strategy to manage this, the World Health Organisation has issued recommendations to reduce overall intake of energy in a day from free (added) sugars to less than 5 or 10%. More can be found about this recommendation here.
Interestingly, upon further reading, it appears beverage producers disagreed with and were disappointed with this recommendation. Once again – if this recommendation decreases demand, then the industry loses income.
The world is waking up to the effects that sugar has on our health, and of course food industry is too.
We need to see our global shifts in food intake – and things we are waking up to as not being so good for us – as having an impact on the industries that create them.
We need to first & foremost realise that the foods we are eating, what is advertised to us about them, what is told to us by our health professionals (including doctors, dieticians & naturopaths), and through dietary guidelines – can be, and currently is, all influenced by food industry.
Food industries all have their own agenda & people within to ‘take care of’ so to speak, and this will not necessarily have people’s health and the wider global health at heart. Having this in our awareness is key, and realising that the way food recommendations are constructed, and have been over our history, are not necessarily the truth of what is needed for our human physical bodies. Our bodies know this, as is shown by the array of illness and disease that has come about by virtue of what (& how) we eat and drink – even when seemingly within recommended guidelines.
We need to see that we are targeted by advertising and positioning of food products everywhere we go. This is not limited to health professionals, but certainly includes them. Service stations and supermarkets are purposefully laid out with this in mind – knowing how to angle shelves and products so you are more likely to buy that particular item of food. A carpark I frequent also recently had vending machines installed facing the exit walkway, with supplies of soft drink & confectionary items. These would be perfectly targeted for shift workers entering or leaving the healthcare facility needing an ‘energy boost’. Food advertising on television is also marketed at particular times, to increase sales also.
Now, more than ever it is important for us to have a relationship with our body where we are listening to what it is telling us with regards to food consumption.
There are many external influences, and your health professional should be a place you can go to explore this further and get sound, supportive & evidence-based advice. We will never be completely free of potential external influence, but we can be discerning in the information we take in and ‘digest’ with regards to food.
My recommendation, as a health professional, is to always stay aware and not buy into everything you see or read about food. Check the fine print, and truly listen to what your body is telling you.