This programme made the case that rising levels of obesity are linked to increased consumption of sugar. It was presented as if this was a surprising proposal. I am not sure how many people would not have heard this proposition before, it was certainly not particularly news to me. It was presented in a polemical way rather than a balanced one. It was also really slowly paced, which I actually quite liked because I was taking notes and tweeting about it, but would have been annoying in the extreme if I had just been watching it. But it was clearly presented and easy to follow. So as a bit of television, it was fine.
As to the message? It was asserted that the growth of processed foods with high sugar contents was down to the policies of Richard Nixon. Well maybe, but I have a feeling that this is something that is driven far more by developments in technology than politics. It is nice to have a villain, but I find it hard to imagine that fast food would never have happened if someone else had been in the White House.
It concentrated attention on Hight Fructose Corn Starch (HFCS), and in particular the presence of the fructose. Does fructose in the diet interfere with the regulation of the hunger mechanism? It sounds a bit unlikely, but it would explain a great deal if it does. This was rather glossed over considering how important it might be. The way it came out in the programme made it sound like this was specifically a problem of HFCS. But in fact table sugar is rapidly broken down to glucose and fructose when eaten, so this is a problem even if you live somewhere like the UK where not much HFCS gets used.
The idea that putting more sugar in the diet leads to more people being overweight is in any case not one that is hard to follow. Especially when you hear that Americans eat 90lb of extra sugar a year. But what about the other big food related health issue, saturated fat causing heart attacks. Is it possible that it is not the fat but the sugar that is the problem? This was presented as if the idea that fat was the cause was totally unfounded and only gained ground because the industry lobbied for it. I am not at all sure it was that black and white. Or that it is that black and white. Doctors treating heart attack survivors clearly think blood cholesterol levels are significant, and they seem to do a pretty job of helping people survive.
But this is an important issue and we need to extract the best answers we can from the information. If being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease and excess sugar causes the extra weight, maybe the sugar has been the culprit all along.
If you live in the UK and missed this programme, I recommend finding it on iPlayer. There are another two episodes to come and I’ll be tuning in. But if they are as slow as the first one I’ll probably make myself a sandwich. Oh hang on….
(I wrote a blog post along very similar lines about how the food we eat makes us fat.)