The Big Sugar juggernaut: how corporate players keep Australia addicted to a sweet killer

by | Mar 23, 2022 | Business

Big Tobacco and Big Pharma have for years been headline grabbers but, Marcus Reubenstein writes, it’s “sweet as” for the global giants fuelling obesity and Type 2 Diabetes with their sugar-laden food and beverages. As far as the Morrison government is concerned any sugar tax proposal is “dead in the cola.”

Few Australians would have heard of Mondelez International Inc. but millions have consumed their products. Walk into any supermarket, petrol station or convenience store and you’ll see the shelves stacked with their brands, such as Cadbury, Toblerone, Côte d’Or and, America’s favourite cookie, Oreos.

Last year the NASDAQ-listed global confectionary giant posted $US28.7 billion in revenue and, from that, extracted a tidy $US11.2 billion in gross profit.

Thanks mainly to Cadbury, Mondelez enjoys the biggest chunk of Australia’s estimated $7 billion confectionary and chocolate market. Cadbury produces 10 of the top 15 chocolates in Australia. Nielsen research, it has been reported, shows Cadbury accounts for 17% of the total value of sales.

Decades after the advertising slogan premiered Cadbury still boasts a “glass and a half of full cream dairy milk” in every 200g block of chocolate. What its ads don’t tell consumers is that same block has a whopping 27 teaspoons of sugar.  

Massively sugar-laden confectionary and beverages have led many involved in obesity treatment, management and research to demand Australia join 54 other nations by introducing a sugar tax.

Enter the lobbyists 

Behind Mondelez Australia is SEC Newgate, one of the nation’s biggest political lobbying and reputation management firms.

SEC Newgate boasts it has more than 150 clients, but you will not find the names of any of them on the company’s website. It is listed on the Australian government’s register of political lobbyists as one of Mondelez’s mouthpieces in Canberra, the register shows no few than six of its lobbyists came straight out of the offices of federal politicians. 

Mondelez is far from alone, US confectionary giant Mars Wrigley, which produces M&M’s, Snickers, Maltesers and Skittles, has lobbyists FPL Advisory advancing its interests in Canberra. A Mars Bar is made up of 60% sugar.

Nestle, makers of, among others, Kit Kat, Milo, Allen’s Sweets and Uncle Toby’s snack bars, employ government relations firm Wilkinson Butler. Despite malt drink Milo being promoted as a nutrient-rich supplement which gives kids “who need a boost” the energy to take on the day, it contains more than 40% sugar.

Coca-Cola has TG Public Affairs, while, cola rival PepsiCo Brands employs GRA Cosway.

Big Sugar and the mecca of political influence 

With its loose campaign-financing laws and a congressional caucus not bound to vote on party lines — not to mention the world’s biggest economy and home to the world’s biggest confectionary and junk-food brands — Washington is the light on the hill for “Big Sugar” lobbying.

A survey of the 30 of the largest food and beverage companies found they spent $US38.2 million in 2020 on lobbying in Washington — this does not include the 50 states which have powers to impose taxes and other conditions on the sale of foods and beverages.

There was a 2010 proposal before the New York state legislature to impose a 12 cents per can sugar tax on cans of soft drinks. It was defeated thanks to a public campaign funded by the American Beverage Association to the tune of $US10 million. 

Lobbyists and US corporations have shrouded sugar-loaded foods and beverages in two issues. Firstly, potential taxes on sugar, which is wrapped up and presented as an issue of personal liberty.

Secondly, they acknowledge sugar is a ‘contributor’ to obesity but lump it in with fast food, consumption of ultra-processed foods, claiming socio-economic disadvantage (precipitated by government) has limited Americans’ food choice and a largely sedentary lifestyle of American who refuse to, or are unable to, exercise.

The high-priced lobbyists — in Washington and Canberra — admit there is a problem; and they’ve been incredibly successful at convincing policymakers they don’t own it.

Australia’s sugar tax dissolved by industry opposition

When a sugar tax was proposed in Australia, the Australian Beverages Council lodged a submission to a 2018 Senate Inquiry that claimed “there is limited and weak evidence that sugar-sweetened beverage taxes are effective in reducing obesity.”    

That was not the conclusion of the Greens party-chaired committee whose final report stated, “the committee recommends that the Australian government introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.”

There was a dissenting report by Liberal National Party members in which they cited research produced by the Menzies Research Centre to claim a sugar tax was of no health benefit. There was no mention the Menzies Research centre has zero expertise in health policy and is a Liberal Party donor.

That dissenting report, signed by Victorian conservative James Paterson, pointed to the exact same research, by the New Zealand Institute for Economic Research, as Coca-Cola in its submission to the same Inquiry.     

Coca-Cola further submitted sugar taxes were ineffective by citing the experience in just four of the 54 nations which had imposed such a tax. It mainly relied on research from ANPRAC, which is Mexico’s peak body representing the interests of soft-drink producers.

Those claims flew directly in the face of a report published by British medical journal The Lancet, which found Mexico’s sugar tax had been successful in reducing consumption of sugar-laden beverages. 

Australian of the Year takes on Big Food, says our diet is ‘killing us’

Needless to say as far as the Morrison government is concerned any sugar tax proposal is “dead in the cola.”

The partly foreign multinational-funded Australian Industry Group, which is the peak body for the confectionary industry, claimed in its submission anti-obesity advocates had “targeted” and “demonised” sugar as a major cause of obesity. 

The unspoken truth about that “sugar hit”

In 2016 the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that the sugar industry had funded research, at prestigious institutions such as Harvard University, as far back as the 1960s playing down the role sugar played in obesity, shifting the blame to fat foods.

The US government’s National Institute for Health (NIH) is among many research groups which have debunked the fat theory, reporting, “Over the past 30 years, the calories from fat in people’s diets have gone down, but obesity rates keep climbing. Evidence suggests that diets high in added sugar promote the development of obesity.”

Another way confectionary and processed food manufacturers circumvent disclosures on sugar content is by listing a multitude of confusing ingredients which, in fact, are all different forms of sugar, they include: dextrose, maltose, glucose, fructose, corn sweetener, honey, corn syrup, sucrose, sorghum syrup, sorbitol, lactose, molasses, syrup, fruit juice concentrate and high-fructose corn syrup.

All of these compounds have the exact same effect on the human body as pure sugar, some would argue worse because they are being consumed by people who do not realise they are ingesting excess sugar. 

Even Harvard University has moved ahead from its shaky 1960s position, now finding, “Beverage companies spend billions of dollars marketing sugary drinks, yet generally rebuffs suggestions that its products and marketing tactics play any role in the obesity epidemic.”

The NIH is also among many medical groups to report that sugar, in all its forms — and processed carbohydrates which, if not burned as energy, are stored in the body as fat — is a significant appetite stimulant.

Ever been tempted to break off just one piece of Cadbury Dairy Milk and walk away from the remaining 190 grams? Once you start it is almost impossible to put down any sugar-laced, ultra-processed food. It makes no business sense to produce a product which encourages consumers to put down after one bite.

Marcus Reubenstein is an independent journalist with more than twenty years of media experience. He spent five years at Seven News in Sydney and seven years at SBS World News where he was a senior correspondent. As a print journalist he has contributed business stories to most of Australia’s major news outlets. Internationally he has worked on assignments for CNN, Eurosport and the Olympic Games Broadcasting Service. He is the founder and editor of China-focussed business website, APAC News.

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