We haven’t always been a nation of overeaters. We haven’t always been obese. So what has happened over the last forty years or so to make us into one of the fattest nations on the planet? An interesting documentary, scheduled for this Thursday on BBC2 at 9pm called ‘The Men That Made Us Fat’, looks into the way sugar has been introduced into our diet, over the last few decades and wonders if this has had an effect on our weight. The mass introduction began back in the early seventies when Richard Nixon, fighting for re-election, was facing a popularity contest and desperately needed some home votes. Problem was that food prices were escalating and he needed a solution to get the farmers, powerful lobbyists at the time, onboard. An agricultural expert came up with a plan. Earl Butz persuaded farmers to produce high yielding, massive industrial scale crops of corn, thus revolutionising what Americans ate. Corn now became the oil which greased a nations’ wheels and drove food prices down, as it was cost-effective and cheap to produce. It became the ubiquitous product in cattle fodder, in cereals, biscuits, flour, and overnight, farmers went from parochial small holders to multi millionaires.
The downside was that by the mid seventies there was a glut of corn and Butz went to Japan to find out if anything could be made from the surplus of it. It could; a high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or glucose-fructose syrup as it’s referred to in the UK, was found to be a cheap product that could be made from surplus corn. It went into mass production and now HFCS was being introduced into all foods, literally anything that you would not normally associate having a sweet syrup added to, was having it added to it; processed meats, pizzas, fizzy drinks, coleslaw, pies. It made everything we ate that little bit sweeter, it extended the shelf life of foods from days to years and it increased the amount of sugar we were putting into our bodies without us knowing about it.
Whilst this stealth attack on our food was taking place, renowned British scientist John Yudkin, Professor at London University was having a private battle against where he thought the rise in heart disease was coming from. He blamed sugar, his American colleague, US nutritionist Ancel Keys blamed fat. The food industry were tending to go along with Keys, aligning themselves to the fat camp which included Professor Robert Lustig, one of the world’s leading endocrinologists, who rubbished the work of Yudkin. Yudkin was criticised by fellow academics, although a colleague at the time, Dr Richard Bruckdorfer at UCL, said, “There was a huge lobby from [the food] industry, particularly from the sugar industry, and Yudkin complained bitterly that they were subverting some of his ideas.” Yudkin was, Lustig says simply, “thrown under the bus”, because there was a huge financial gain to be made by fingering fat, not sugar, as the culprit of heart disease. The food industry wanted to create a whole new genre of food that they knew the time was right for the public to embrace whole heartedly – ‘low fat food’. Lustig however, pointed out the main problem, “When you take the fat out of a recipe, food tastes like cardboard, and you need to replace it with something – that something being sugar.”
Within days new products appeared on our shelves, declaring themselves to be ‘low in fat’ and ‘good for us’. We could still eat all our favourite foods, low-fat yoghurts, desserts, cakes and biscuits, just with all the fat taken out. We did not ask what they had been replaced with. The replacement was the corn oil sugar. In the mid 80’s, certain health experts, including Professor Philip James, began to notice that obesity was a world wide phenomena and no one could explain why. In 1966 the proportion of people with a BMI of over 30 (classified as obese) was just 1.2% for men and 1.8% for women. By 1989 the figures had risen to 10.6% for men and 14.0% for women. And something else was happening. The more sugar we ate, the more we wanted, and the hungrier we became. Studies showed that when rats ate rat food they put on weight normally, but when they ate processed supermarket food they ballooned in weight. And their appetite was insatiable. Further research suggested that sugar has a surprising impact on particular organs such as the gut. According to Schwarz and Sclafani, the gut is a highly complex nervous system. It works as the bodies ‘second brain’, and this second brain becomes conditioned to wanting more sugar, sending messages back to the brain that are impossible to fight. It is well known that highly processed foods are not good for us but not so well known that it is not fat that causes obesity, but possibly the amount of hidden sugars in processed foods that could be to blame. So far the food industry is a powerful enough institution to be able to fight against these accusations as they hold a number of purse strings in which to restrain government intervention, should they so wish. The revenue the government receives from the UK snack and confectionary market would appear to be untouchable in regards to health and wellbeing. However, a tide is turning it seems as there is a tipping point of which the cost to the NHS of treating obese patients, currently standing at £5 billion a year, will outstrip the profit from the revenue of the food industry of approximately £8 billion a year. When this happens I suspect all bets will be off.
• The Men Who Made Us Fat, 9pm, Thursday, BBC2.
Source – The Guardian