Foes of 'globesity' run afoul of sugar's friends
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The growing incidence of overweight people in developing countries threatens to overwhelm fragile healthcare systems. Problems related to obesity cost the US $117 billion last year, according to the US Surgeon General: Few developing countries could pay that sort of bill.Skip to next paragraph
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The WHO is responding with what spokesman David Porter calls "a toolbox of options" to help governments set policies on diet, physical activity, and health.
The strategy offers the sort of dietary advice mother may have given you - limit sugar, fats and salt, eat more fruit, vegetables, and legumes - and encourages daily exercise. It calls on the food industry to cut back on the saturated fats, trans fatty acids, salt, and sugar in its products, and to label them more clearly. And it suggests that governments might want to impose "Twinkie taxes" that discourage unhealthy eating habits, or to regulate the way junk food is marketed to children.
Controversy has focused on a report by a group of independent experts that provides the scientific foundations for the strategy, and particularly on the scientists' recommendation that consumers should limit "free sugars" to 10 percent of their calorie intake.
Although this proposal is roughly in line with recommendations that many national governments, including the US, make to citizens, the idea has provoked uproar among sugar producers, who say that the evidence supporting such a ceiling is outdated or inconclusive. Riaz Khan, the head of the World Sugar Research Organization, wrote in a letter to the WHO that their report "does not meet expected modern standards for a scientific review" and would have "serious, detrimental and long-lasting effects on the agriculture and the economy of those countries."
Until recently, the United States has spearheaded criticism of the WHO strategy and science. But three US senators, led by Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, complained in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson that the US objections "largely mirror those raised by food industry trade groups," echoing allegationsthat the administration was defending US junk food producers.
Last week, at a meeting of the FAO, the US delegation presented a more nuanced position. Some observers suggest that the shift is merely tactical, since developing countries in the Group of 77 led the charge at the FAO. "The battle against obesity must be fought through better nutritional education and not by arbitrary quantitative dietary recommendations" said Fabio Valencia, the Colombian chairman of the Group of 77. "You cannot stigmatize one food product such as sugar," says Nestor Ponguta, a spokesman for Mr. Valencia.
"The sugar industry was lobbying like crazy" at the FAO meeting, says Mr. Rigby. "They were trying to put the 'frighteners' on the developing countries."
FAO officials, however, say the impact on sugar producers would be marginal. "The recommendations would take time to implement, and there are many countries, such as China, where consumption is way below the 10 percent figure, so there is room for more sales there," says Mr. Schmidhuber. At the same time, he adds, developing countries in the tropics could take advantage of increases in fruit and vegetable consumption that the WHO wants to recommend. "It could constitute a major export opportunity," he says.