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Health experts attack sugar industry in fight against obesity



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OSLO, Oct 6 (AFP) - International health experts meeting in Norway on Wednesday accused the sugar industry of concealing the risks that the sweet stuff poses to people's health worldwide.

A dozen specialists kicked off two days of talks here aimed at looking at ways to implement a World Health Organization (WHO) strategy to reduce sugar consumption, too much of which is known to cause cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity.

"Obesity is among the most important health issues in the world today. Behind obesity lies food and behind food lies sugar," Kaare Norum, head of the WHO panel tasked with examining the issues of nutrition, health and physical activity, told AFP.

Some 1.1 billion people around the world are overweight (of whom 300 million are considered obese), largely outnumbering the 700 million underweight people.

"If you didn't have sugar, you wouldn't be able to sell fat," said Neville Rigby of the England-based International Obesity Task Force.

Along with salt, sugar is increasingly present in the food we eat, at the same time as physical activity is on the decline, according to experts.

They say the problem of obesity is largely attributed to a lack of information, sometimes deliberate, to consumers about the effects of sugar on health, including the lack of details on food labels about the quantity of added sugars.

"The problem is not ignored but there are lots of businesses against us," Norum said, adding: "It's a clash between business interests and public health interests."

After health experts decided to wage war on sugar, the US sugar industry threatened to pressure Washington to slash its fees to the WHO budget. "It did not happen but it says a lot about the pressure," Norum said.

According to an article in the British newspaper The Observer on Sunday, the sugar industry is now trying to sponsor the WHO with large amounts of funding in order to be recognized as a non-governmental organisation and be able to defend its interests.

"If it was left up to me, it wouldn't happen," Norum said.

Sugar consumption is skyrocketing around the world.

In the United States, each person consumes an average of the equivalent of "31 teaspoons of sugar" a day, or 20 percent more than the level consumed 20 years ago, Rigby said.

Studies conducted in 15 members of the European Union showed that obesity costs society between 75 and 130 billion euros annually, and that 72,000 new cancer cases attributed to overweight are discovered each year.

In China, sugar now represents a third of the population's nutritional values, compared to 15 percent a decade ago.

Specialists currently recommend that people limit sugar consumption to "less than 10 percent" of their diet.

"If you're overconsuming sugar every extra unit increases the risk of having obese kids and those obese kids turn into obese adults who are on a slippery slope to serious health problems," Rigby said.

According to data provided by the experts, half of the sugar consumed by American children comes from sodas and other sugared drinks and a third comes from candy.

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COPYRIGHT 2004 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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