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The Greatest Lie Ever Told

When John S Yudkin wrote Pure, White and Deadly in 1972, the book was met with great criticism from the food industry in general. His views, they said, were unsubstantiated and misleading, targeting a fairly innocuous substance used by millions in their daily lives. The substance he was referring to is, of course, sugar. Fast forward to the 21st Century and, it appears, we are paying the price for this cynical oversight. The unprecedented rise in obesity and heart disease has led to major changes in the way food is marketed and produced and in the way we, as consumers, tend to buy it. But, like Yudkin’s prescient warning, the problem refuses to go away.

The discovery of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the mid-60s, changed the way food was produced. Cheap and easy to manufacture corn syrup was soon used in a variety of products including pizzas, ice-cream, sodas and meat. Small amounts of fructose (like that found in fruit), are acceptable and help to promote general health. Problems occur when consumption far outweighs the body’s ability to process it. According to the experts, up to fifteen percent of the modern diet is made up of fructose, a figure that is far from healthy. This is also a major contributory factor in the obesity epidemic of today.

The argument over who or what was to blame came to a head during the mid-70s. Having debated the health crisis for many years, experts finally came to an informed conclusion that was to have huge ramifications for future generations. Fat, they announced, was the number one enemy. Almost overnight, the low-fat revolution was born, with food companies desperate to adapt their branding to fit the new guidelines. But taking fat out of the equation left one disconcerting problem. The resulting taste was far from satisfactory, lacking the substance and bite that consumers were used to. To get around this inconvenience, manufacturers added that other beguiling source of dietary pleasure – sugar.

In 1979, the EU introduced food labelling laws, to help the consumer make better choices. Food manufacturers had to itemise the contents of all their products and clearly state the percentages of fat, protein and carbohydrate on all packaging. But in spite of the general rethink in the public’s perception of food, the obesity problem didn’t go away. In fact, since the 80s, it has continued to worsen. Why is this? If we, as a nation, are consuming less fat, and eating all the low-fat products recommended by the manufacturers, why are we still piling on the weight? Perhaps the answer lies in Mr Yudkin’s warning words back in 1972, and in the nature of our own evolution.

Way back in the distant past, before McDonald’s and Burger King, we existed on an extremely simple diet. As cave-dwellers and foragers, we ate mainly fruit, nuts and seeds, augmented with fish and occasionally meat from hunted animals. Our digestive system has changed very little since then. While we have adapted successfully to advances in technology (learning to drive motor vehicles and operate computers), we have been far less successful at coping with the extreme changes to the way we eat.

Paleolithic man didn’t have fast food to boost his calories and raise his blood sugar levels. His energy came from the complex carbohydrates that grew naturally on the land. Sugar would have come from fruits, and in nothing like the quantities it’s eaten today. In short, our ancestral cousin was a leaner, healthier specimen, in spite of the dangers posed by disease and exposure to a hostile environment. Today’s comfort driven age might give us an array of tempting choices, but we’re paying a terrible price for the privilege of giving in.

Endocrinologist Robert Lustig, MD, has been studying the effects of obesity for years. He sees the issue largely as a conspiracy by the food giants, to cover up the real extent of the problem. One of the main culprits is high fructose corn syrup. Made from refined sugar cane, a process that relies heavily on chemicals, the end result is a product stripped of all nutrients, vitamins and minerals, with no discernable health benefits for the consumer at all. Fructose is a poison, Lustig says, that fails to stimulate insulin and leptin, both critical in weight control and the absorption of food. The continued use of HFCS, both by the fast food industry and supermarkets have led to many questions being asked, and a major health crisis that can no longer be ignored.

Jacques Peretti’s BBC documentary The Men Who Made Us Fat also links the rise of obesity to the introduction of HFCS in the mid-60s. Peretti is also keen to point out the similarities between sugar and any other addictive substance. Our brains crave the rapid ‘high’ we get from indulging and want more. Food manufacturers, never ones to miss a money-making opportunity, are eager to exploit this human weakness and cash-in.

Why don’t government officials and senior executives in the food industry take action, given the mounting evidence? The answer is, of course, profit. The food giants are among the richest in the world, earning billions every year from products we buy without thinking. Profit is, and always will be, the primary motivational force behind every marketing campaign, regardless of the possible consequences to public well-being. You hardly need a degree in economics to figure that out. Along with the food giants and manufacturers, the government are equally complicit, having consistently ignored reports from food experts that identify the problem and call for changes. In the end, the only defence they can offer is one of breathtaking cynicism. Never mind the toxins we’re pumping into the food chain, they say, it’s down to the consumer to decide what ends up in the shopping trolley.

And in some respects they’re right. Each and every one of us bears the final responsibility for our health, regardless of government apathy and slick marketing campaigns to convince us otherwise. Given the volumes of literature devoted to the subject in the last few decades, we can hardly claim we’ve been ill-informed. Perhaps the only answer is to read the labels. At least that way we have some idea what we’re putting into our bodies. Complacency, like heart disease, is a killer. To be informed is to be one step ahead of the game.

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