Teen obesity ‘intervention’ just more ‘sugary drinks’ confusion

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October 2, 2012

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s misnamed “sugary drinks” campaign, planned to go into effect next March after approval by the city’s Board of Health in September, is not only based on a ‘supersized’ false premise, but appears to be part of a disturbing trend in promoting “diet” drinks to kids.

Bloomberg’s war on obesity, kicked off at the beginning of June at a press conference with Deputy Mayor for Heath Linda Gibbs, was decorated for photographers as they surrounded themselves with soft drinks and sugar cubes, despite the fact that likely every drink at the mayor’s press conference contained not a trace of sugar, but rather high fructose corn syrup.

The Bloomberg plan to ban the selling of caloric beverages (most likely HFCS-sweetened ones) over 16 ounces at concessions stands, delis, restaurants, and any other business with a food-service license, appears to be giving kids and adults a green light to guzzle aspartame-sweetened and other diet drinks which have been exempted from the city-wide ban.

A side effect of all the confusion and mistaken “sugary” hype is a reported rise in the consumption of artificially sweetened drinks. According to a study published this summer in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, children are drinking more artificially sweetened beverages than ever, twice as much as ten years ago. Could part of that be because researchers are promoting, even delivering free of charge, diet drinks to kids?

A just-out study published September in the New England Journal of Medicine, described to be an “intervention” among overweight and obese adolescents to see if reduction of “sugar-sweetened” beverages would slow weight gain consisted in part of a “home delivery”  for a year of diet drinks to participant’s homes every two weeks. Other tactics in the “multicomponet intervention,” led by Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children’s Hospital, consisted of monthly “motivational” phone calls, three home visits, and written messages with instructions to drink the delivered beverages.

A bad choice vs. a worse one?

Nowhere, however, does the advisability of substituting one test-tube sweetener, such as aspartame, for another, HFCS, seem to enter into the picture. To read about this study, one would never know that aspartame is considered by some leading medical authorities to be an “excitotoxin” – that is, a substance that literally excites brain cells to death, especially in children whose blood-brain barriers are not fully developed, Its use in food was also opposed by a group of scientific advisers to the Food and Drug Administration after being linked to brain tumors in lab rats, and has been the subject of thousands of complaints since made to the FDA claiming adverse reactions, including seizures and blindness.

Adding to the confusion over the term “sugar-sweetened beverages” to describe those that contain HFCS is the fact that the researchers’ themselves don’t seem to know the difference. The Ludwig Journal article, for example, states that teens consuming “sugar-sweetened” drinks showed more weight gain than those given diet beverages. However if you look at the study they are citing, it’s clearly called Effect of drinking soda sweetened with aspartame or high-fructose corn syrup on food intake and body weight.

Ludwig’s study, which didn’t focus on physical activity or any other aspect of the kids’ diet, used a “control”  group of teens who didn’t receive the free diet drinks, but just two $50 supermarket gift cards. At the end of the year, the kids on diet beverages gained an average of  four fewer pounds for the year.

Oddly, Dr. Ludwig himself, in an Internet interview to promote his book, Ending the Food Fight, hints at a likely connection between the the obesity epidemic and the use of HFCS by noting that “obesity rates didn’t start rising until the 1970s in the United States…” – a time frame that corresponds to the substitution of HFCS for sugar in the American diet. Prior to that time, beverages (and other products) sweetened with actual sugar were commonly consumed, yet the obesity rate remained much lower than it is today in both children and adults.

Fortunately, not everyone involved in obesity research has lost sight of this important distinction. Dr. Michael Goran, director of the Childhood Obesity Research Center at the University of Southern California, whose 2010 study found several popular HFCS-sodas contained over the legal limit of fructose, pointed out to Food Identity Theft that the these so-called sugary drinks “do not contain sugar – they are made with high fructose corn syrup. It is Goran’s contention that “we need to be careful not to take our eye off the real target,” which is a much bigger threat (of) obesity and chronic diseases from “the proliferation of high fructose corn syrup in our food supply.”

And, if that wasn’t bad enough, we now have key people in the medical community implying that it’s a much better idea to consume a neurotoxic substitute.