Why Are Public Health Messages So Confusing?
If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the episode I did with Belinda Fettke, a Medical Researcher, the wife of Dr. Gary Fettke, who is an Orthopaedic Surgeon in Tasmania, with a very interesting story and we’ve released that podcast to coincide with Belinda.
Gary’s was one of the very first podcast episodes I did on the Unstress with Dr Ron Podcast Series. Going back now, three years. I did it with him for a very good reason and that reason was about public health messages, about the demonization of anybody that challenges the status quo, and basically the whole story behind confusing and contradictory public health messages, which is something that I’ve explored in my book [A Life Less Stressed: the five pillars of health and wellness].
In the first part of my book, I covered this in a lot more detail and if you listen to the Belinda Fettke episode, you will realize that she has covered it in even more detail than that. It’s a story that’s a really important one because public health messages are confusing and they are often contradictory and we’re experiencing that now with the pandemic, which I’m going to cover in later podcasts in another Healthy Bite.
Basically, in this blog, I thought I would just touch on some of the issues that make those public health messages so confusing, because whenever we hear about nutritional advice, for example, we’re always confronted with images. If you’re watching this on YouTube, which I’d recommend you do, but if you’re reading it, I’ll explain it to you as I go.
Public health messages are really important
We’re often confronted by images of hamburgers, chips, processed foods, and that is what poor nutrition is often described as and it most certainly is poor nutrition. I’m not saying it’s not, but I would argue that possibly one of the most significant nutritional stresses we have faced has come in the form of the public health message, and that is the Food Pyramid which was kind of been formulated in the late 1970s and early 80s and eventually found its way into the FDA.
The Food and Drug Administration approved it in 1992, and it basically put bread, cereals, rice, and pasta groups as the foundation for a healthy diet. You should have 6-11 servings of these a day. And of course, the whole demonization of fat and in particular animal fats was part of that. Now, that was 1992 and in 2011 it morphed into my plate and what goes on in America goes on in Australia as well. It morphed in 2013 into what became known as the Australian Healthy Eating Guidelines.
Now, I mentioned in the podcast with Belinda (Fettke), and I’ve mentioned it before, that I’ve been following this story right through my professional career or from very early on when I worked. For example, when I was grappling with the issue of Mercury Amalgam in fillings, and I’d been taught at university that was locked in, that it was perfectly safe, that there was no problem with it. But certain chiropractors and naturopaths drew to my attention that perhaps the advice that I was getting from the universities and the professional organizations I was a member of, may not have been as accurate as they could or should have been. In fact, Mercury was being released from the fillings and now, although it is illegal to put dental mercury amalgam scraps in the garbage or toilet or down the sink, even in 2021, it is apparently the only safe place to keep Dental Mercury Amalgam.
According to the NHMRC, the Australian Dental Association, and the Dental Boards, and the universities, the only safe place to keep this mercury product which releases mercury, is in a human being. Now, that’s the whole subject for another thing. But that’s what got me started in the mid-80s on my journey of asking some questions about public health advice. And that’s still to this very day and nutrition has been my interest since the early 80s. So nutritional advice is always something of interest to me.
I would say this Food Pyramid and the Australian Healthy Eating Guidelines are a problem. But the question is how are they formulated? And that led me to read books like this, The Death by Food Pyramid by Denise Minger, if you haven’t read it, I would recommend it to you, it came out in 2013, how shoddy science and sketchy politics and shady interests have ruined our health and how to reclaim it, which is something that I cover in my book and what this blog is all about. It was by no means the only book on this topic when it came to nutritional advice.
Now, Belinda (Fettke) references the work of another author, David Gillespie, who dealt with his own health issues and I did a podcast with him. I’d recommend you go back and listen to it. In 2008, he wrote a book called Sweet Poison, Why Sugar Makes Us Fat and Big Fat Lies: How the Diet Industry Is Making You Sick, Fat and Poor 2012.
Look, these are all things that challenged the food pyramid and the low-fat dogma and in case you’re wondering what effect because we hear so often about everything must be evidence-based. I think that’s a good point, which should be. Why don’t we look at the evidence and when we look at the evidence and we see the trajectory of Diabetes, for example, or if we go back even further and look at the trajectory of Obesity, we note.
Let me describe to you a graph, that at the time that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which was the precursor to which was the food pyramid, was first introduced in about 1980. Remember, it didn’t get FDA approval until 1992. But in 1980, the late 70s, early in 1980, it was introduced and from that moment on, obesity started to go through the roof in the US and in Australia.
But if we fast forward to look at diabetics as well, the same thing has happened. Ever since the FDA and the Heart Foundation and the American Diabetes Association approved and endorsed the Food Pyramid, Diabetes has gone through the roof. The advice hasn’t changed. The evidence hasn’t been followed. And the question is.. Why?
And the answer comes back to how are these public health messages formulated? And it was so interesting to me because, in 2014, I attended the Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society’s Annual Scientific Meeting, and obesity is everyone’s challenge.
When I looked at the Delegate Handbook, one of the sponsors was the Sugar Research Advisory Service, providing, and I’m quoting here, “Providing the scientific facts on sugar and health from Australian and New Zealand experts. Are you confused about sugar? They asked, tackling the toxic sugar health messages. Is sugar really the culprit of the obesity epidemic?” And the Sugar Research Advisory Service sponsored the Obesity Society’s meeting, and one can only imagine what effect that has.
How are public health messages formulated?
Well, let me share with you some other little pearls because when you ask how are public health messages formulated, you would think the Dieticians Association of America would be a good place to start. Right? And the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world’s largest Organisation of Food and Nutritional Professionals, which was formally referred to as the American Dietetic Association.
When I saw this, I was concerned because, in 2008 or 2007, the American Dietetic Association welcomed Pepsi Cola as a major sponsor, 2007. Of course, if they had Pepsi Cola in 2008, it wasn’t didn’t come as a great surprise that they also welcomed the Coca-Cola Company as a major partner who is helping formulate the world’s greatest, you know, organization on nutrition advice.
When I actually went even further and looked at the world’s largest Organisation of Food and Nutritional Professionals, as I said, formerly the American Dietetic Association, here is a list of their sponsors. Their partners that are helping them formulate educational programs are; (1) Aramark. I’m not quite sure who Aramark is; (2) the Coca-Cola Company; (3) Hershey, you may know about Hershey Chocolate Bars; and (4) the National Dairy Council. So they were the major partners.
The premier sponsors were: (1) Abbott Nutrition, which does a lot of baby formulations; (2) General Mills, which is a cereal company; (3) Kellogg’s, of course; (4) Mars bars, they are very important partner for this American Dietetic Association; (5) Pepsi-Cola, I’d already mentioned; (6) SoyJoy, the makers and producers of soybean products; (7) Truvia, natural sweetener; (8) and Unilever, the makers of Flora Margarine and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream.
The other event sponsors included: (1) Conagra; (2) Safeway; (3) Target; (4) and Campbell’s Soup Company, plus a few others. And that they are the sponsors of this organization.
Now, interestingly, there’s another very aghast organization, or the American Society for Nutrition, whose by-line is excellence in nutritional research and practice. This was established in 1928 and it’s dedicated, I’m quoting from their website here, “It’s dedicated to bringing together the World’s Top Researchers, Clinical Nutritionists and importantly, Industry to advance our knowledge and application of nutrition for the sake of humans and animals.” Very noble. Just a great group there but a list of their sponsors, the American Society of Nutrition is pleased to acknowledge the support of these organizations for educational programs of the society. These are the companies that are helping the American Society of Nutrition formulate educational programs and help sponsor public health messages. And who might they be?
Well, I won’t go through the whole list, but if you’re watching this, you can look at it but I’ll read out some of the highlights. (1) Abbott Laboratories, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world; (2) Campbell’s Soup; (3) Cadbury Schweppes; (4) the Coca-Cola Company makes another appearance; (5) as does ConAgra Foods; (6) the Danone company, which does a lot of yogurts and dairy products; (7) DSM Nutritional Products’ (8) Eli Lilly, which is a drug company; (9) Gerber Products Company, you remember the Gerber, baby foods; (10) GlaxoSmithKline, a drug company.
Interestingly, with GlaxoSmithKline, it’s interesting to see them supporting the food industry here but they are also pharmaceutical, and they hold the award for the Biggest Legal Fine for Illegal Marketing of their products. They were fined about 2010, I think, 3-billion dollars. I digress but here they are supporting the food company; (11) Kellogg’s Company again; (12) of course, Kraft Foods; (13) and Mars Bar again make their appearance. You’ll be reassured to know (14) Monsanto is a major sponsor; (15) as of course, are the National Dairy Council. Any suggestion that the dairy food may have any problem at all, we must dismiss that. (16) Nestlé Nutrition, of course; (17) Pepsi Cola making another appearance here; (18) Pharmanex, a drug company; (19) the Procter & Gamble Company, of course; (20) Cirelli Foods, Cirelli cheesecakes. I actually do like certainly cheesecakes, but I’ve never pretended they’re good for me; (21) The Sugar Association; (22) Unilever again, the makers of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and Flora; (23) Wrigley, the chewing gum people; (24) and Wyeth, both nutritional and consumer health care. So this is just the list of some.
What is the big deal?
In case you’re wondering, what is the big deal? So what’s the big deal, Ron? Come on, get over it. I mean, what effect do these kinds of sponsorships have on these professional organizations?
I want to give you a very simple example. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Now, they are an academy that specializes in children’s oral health. The American Academy of Dentistry in 2003 said something that even anybody with the most basic knowledge of nutrition could not argue with, and that is this: Frequent consumption of sugars in any beverage can be a significant factor in the child or adolescent diet that contributes to the initiation and progression of dental caries.
In other words, “Sugary drinks cause tooth decay.” In children, adolescents, and for that matter, in adults and that was their clear public health message in 2003. Then in 2004. PepsiCo, who, as you know, sponsored all those other organizations, sponsored the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, and in 2004 they subtly changed their message from saying “Sugary drinks cause tooth decay.” to this: “Scientific evidence is certainly not clear on the exact role that soft drinks play in terms of children’s oral disease.”.
Let’s translate that to public health messages and I think you get an idea of why Belinda Fettke and myself have been interested in this for some time and we’re not the only ones. Professor Marion Nestle. No relation, I think, to Nestlé, ironically, wrote this book in 2002, Food Politics How the Food Industry Influenced Nutrition and Health. Marion Nestle is a world-renowned public professor of public health.
Then we come to the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines. Now, I did a podcast with James Muecke. James Muecke was the Australian of the Year in 2020. He’s an Ophthalmic Surgeon who has done some amazing humanitarian work in South East Asia and he was named Australian of the Year at the beginning of 2020.
He decided because he had seen the devastation, that type two diabetes causes blindness not only causes gangrene of uncontrolled diabetes, will eventually result in gangrenous limbs were resulting in amputations, which is why Orthopaedic Surgeon Gary Fettke was feeling so passionate about this.
Here we had Australian of the Year, Ophthalmic Surgeon, James Muecke, deciding to champion Type 2 Diabetes. When he started to look at the Australian Healthy Eating Guidelines, he like so many other health practitioners, in fact, so many of your health practitioners, the doctors, that you go to visit and who see you with the best of intentions. I mean, doctors just follow. They’re so busy in their practices unless they have made nutritional and environmental medicine and an issue, which I believe they should. But a lot of doctors don’t necessarily prioritize it. I covered that with my discussion with Professor Ian Brighthope in another podcast.
But like tens of thousands of health practitioners, they just accepted the Australian Healthy Eating Guidelines and so did Australian of the Year, James Muecke. Until he became Australian of the Year and then started to explore Diabetes and how he would frame public health messages and he was shocked to learn of how the Australian Healthy Eating Guidelines are formulated.
As I have said many times on my podcast, this is a story that is easy to miss as a busy health practitioner but once you hear it, it was very difficult to ignore. It was very difficult for James Mucke to ignore, it was very difficult for Gary Fettke to ignore and it launched Belinda Fettke and Gary on a journey of exploration about how public health messages are formulated.
That’s why I have put it in as the first part of my book and why I still continue to explore it. If you want to explore it, I would recommend that you go onto YouTube and listen to a short 18-minute presentation. I’ll have the links to it in this show notes.
Dr Maryanne Demasi, who many of you may know as the host of the ABC’s Catalyst Programme, she’s a medical practitioner, and has a PhD, and also is a medical researcher. She explores who really influences nutritional policy in Australia.
I’ll give you a hint as to what is involved in the Australian Healthy Eating Guidelines. The NHMRC put it out to tender every 10 years and the tender is worth 500,000 dollars and the Australian Dieticians Association won the tender in 2010 and then it was eventually released in 2013.
I’m not going to spoil it for you other than to say the sponsors of the Australian Dieticians Association are this: (1) the Grains and Legumes, Council of Australia; (2) Kellogg’s; (3) Campbell’s; (4) Arnett’s; (5) Unilever, the makers of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and Flora Margarine; (6) Nestlé, the dairy industry of Australia; (7) Abbott Nutrition, the makers of Glucerna, new shakes and bars designed for people with diabetes to use as part of a weight-loss plan; (8) And Nutricia Australia, Advanced Medical Nutrition, part of the Danone group, which you have heard from the American Dieticians Association. I would really recommend you look at that YouTube clip because it’s well worth watching.
Look, the point is, as I have also made many times, that public health messages are formulated largely by the chemical, food, and pharmaceutical industry who sponsor professional organizations, who will wittingly or unwittingly act as proxies for the commercial interests of those organizations and it is a beautiful economic model.
There’s only one problem if the evidence is anything to go by, and that is.. That it’s not a very good health model because heart disease is still the number one killer. Cancer is number two or number three killer actually is prescription medications. But then that’s also followed by autoimmune conditions, of which there are over 100, and then Diabetes and these are preventable problems with good public health messages. These issues could be prevented but with this kind of corporate influence, it’s a very uphill battle.
That’s what this blog is about. That’s what my book is all about. That’s what Belinda Fettke’s work is all about and it’s about finding reliable information and I struggle with this myself. As aware as I am of it, I struggle with it myself and that’s what I do. That’s what I’m trying to impart to you and I’m doing that throughout this entire pandemic, trying to promote immune function, because I believe what we should be doing is getting the best of everything, the best that pharmaceutical products have to offer. They have an important role to play in our health care. I’m not anti-pharmaceutical. I’m just wanting to also make the best of what complementary, functional integrative medicine has to offer as well and come up with what is best for public health.
Look, that’s something obviously I felt passionate about for a long time, and that’s what this blog and my health programs are all about. I hope this finds you well.
This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.