Thursday 19 November 2009

Fruit cakes

Dick Puddlecote has written a great post, inspired by efforts to demonise fruit juice. His conclusion is short and to the point, but it encapsulates the frustration of many people who - after a decade of junk science and scare stories - must be wondering what on earth they can eat or drink.

The article Dick links to is fascinating in the way it illustrates the cul de sac that debased epidemiology and food faddism have left us in. Please read it. Weeping is optional. 

At its heart is a study which found that children who drank more than 12 ounces of fruit juice were 3 and a half times (or 350%) more likely to be fat that those who didn't. The study only involved 168 children and the obvious explanation - that gluttons who eat a lot tend to drink a lot as well - is never entertained. 

Furthermore, the article admits:

The link between juice and weight gain isn't always found, however. In a 2008 review of 21 studies, six supported the connection and 15 did not.

None of which deters Kimber Stanhope of the (surprise, surprise) University of California, who says there is no difference between fruit juice and soda.

"Both are going to promote equal weight gain," she said, adding that she's perplexed by the fixation on the evils of sugar-sweetened beverages: "Why are they the only culprit?"

The thing is, she has a point. Once calories were identified as evil, there was never any reason to end the obesity crusade with less-fashionable items like burgers, pizza, soda. 

The tone is set near the beginning of the article with this statement:

There's also evidence that high consumption increases the risk of obesity, especially among kids.

This is a meaningless statement. It's like saying that "too much of x is harmful." It is self-evident. "High consumption" of anything containing calories could increase the "risk" of obesity. As ever, it is the quantity that matters. The poison is in the dose. 

We can laugh at such stories but one thing we cannot do is accuse those behind them of inconsistency. If we are to tax fizzy drinks because of their calorie content, it is perfectly logical to tax fruit juice, bread, potatoes - indeed everything except water and celery. There is a faultless internal logic at work here which can only be undermined by challenging the whole rotten edifice on which it stands. 

Is a tax on fruit juice likely? No, not for the time being. But only because the self-appointed guardians of public health dare not attack something that is so popular with so many. This is an important point. They have no ethical objections to such measures. It is doubtful whether issues of liberty even cross their mind. But they are pragmatists, as the reporter explains:

It's uncomfortable for advocates of a junk-food tax who say they can't afford to target juice and alienate its legions of fans.
Even the porky obesity zealot Kelly Brownell agrees that it is too much, too soon (Jacob Sullum has written entertainingly about Brownell here - recommended):

Brownell of Yale has waged a high-profile campaign to fight obesity with "sin" taxes on soda and other sugary drinks. It's already an uphill battle, and he said he's loath to provoke the tens of millions of Americans who consider their morning juice sacrosanct.

Dr. Frank Greer, who spent 10 years on the American Academy of Pediatrics' nutrition committee, said he "can't imagine" the group would ever downgrade juice to the status of soda.

"It's such a normal part of the American diet," Greer said. "A glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice for breakfast, my goodness!"

Fruit juice gets a stay of execution, then, only because it has not yet been denormalised. In a few years, thanks to articles like this, that may change. 


Curmudgeon said...

Given that alcoholic drinks, sugary soft drinks, soft drinks with artificial sweeteners, drinks containing caffeine, milk, fruit juice and bottled water have all been demonised, I sometimes wonder whether all that is left to us is to die of thirst. Are we not supposed to drink anything apart from tap water?

Dick Puddlecote said...

Great piece Chris, and ta for the link.

The problem, as I see it, is that these studies used to come out and were taken into account by government but policy wasn't affected unduly. Nor did the 'scientists' push their opinions, it wasn't their job to legislate.

Now we have politicians falling over themselves to make laws based on this daft stuff, and 'scientists' who get more and more pushy if their advice is ignored (Nutt, anyone?). So much so, that it almost seems that any study that comes out must be translated into law lest the politicians, or the 'scientists', be deemed failures.

Anonymous said...

I am confused. I shouldn't be as I have been a physiologist for 25yrs and involved in animal (fish)nutrition for the last 5, but I am confused. I thought it was sucrose that was the baddie and fruit contains small amounts of glucose and larger amounts of fructose. I have heard, repeatedly, that fruit is the hero of the hour, essential to good health and ought to be consumed in large quantities. I know that fruit is basically organised sugar water that contains a little fibre, almost no protein, a few water soluble vitamins and very low levels of micronutrients. Fruit seeds are often trace metal rich, if you like cadmium and arsenic in your diet they can be recommended. Lots of plants are good at collecting heavy metals from the soil, I am sure this is a highly beneficial addition to any balanced diet. Freshly squeezed fruit juice contains no more sugar, of any kind, than the whole fruit. Concentrated juices are more sugar rich. As you get no more sugar from drinking the fresh juice than you would from eating the orange (probably a little less) why is the orange a good thing and the juice a bad thing? During my long education as a physiologist I learned that the only kind of really bad food is none at all, a situation that can be guaranteed to kill people quite quickly and effectively. Too much food makes you fat, a situation that apparently takes an average human lifetime to kill you.

I am just going to go and bang my head against a handy wall. It is satisfying, non-fattening and at least gives me a reason for the headache.