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Last month I talked about lying with statistics and how food companies use science to mislead you. Someone actually does that research, and those "experts" and others are used to put a scientific face on and bring authority to the technique of lying with statistics.
I am interviewed by the media fairly regularly. Often the topic is something controversial, and that makes sense. It's difficult for news organizations to get people to pay attention and contentious topics do stand out. Stories about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), fast food and kooky weight loss products are popular, as you might expect, and these almost always result in emails or comments criticizing me for one reason or another. I don't have a problem with this. It is, after all, my opinion and others are entitled to theirs.
The emails that are the most disturbing, however, come from industry shills. I used this term recently in a lecture and someone didn't know what it meant, and after looking it up in the dictionary I found that I like the word even more:
shill | [shil] | informal
1. a person who poses as a customer in order to decoy others into participating, as at a gambling house, auction, confidence game, etc.
2. a person who publicizes or praises something or someone for reasons of self-interest, personal profit, or friendship or loyalty.
I apply the term to those who "praises something" at the beck and call of the food industry. One of the first letters that I received was a while back. There's a cardiologist in Florida by the name of James Rippe who sent me an email in response to my comments about high fructose corn syrup. In his communication he goes to great lengths to defend HFCS. Why? Because he's paid to, of course.
I have long said that I would be very rich if I didn't have any scruples, because having an M.D. behind my name is valuable - if you don't care that you might be a shill for scoundrels.
I simply can't imagine, however, being a physician and defending large food manufacturers and a product of dubious quality that's clearly implicated in the obesity epidemic. HFCS is added to a wide variety of foods that have no business containing added sweeteners and is a far different product than sucrose (in spite of Dr. Rippe's claim that it's harmless). There's clear research showing issues with higher proportions of fructose and its link to obesity and other health issues. While the research is incomplete, there is enough evidence that as responsible physicians we should be advocating that our patients eliminate HFCS from their diets along with all food that contains added sugars.
Such a posture is similar to that of physicians who promoted smoking during the first half of the last century. And, yes, even the AMA endorsed smoking, accepting cigarette advertising beginning in 1933, rationalizing it "after careful consideration of the extent to which cigarettes were used by physicians in practice." It's time for physicians to lead by example as they did in the early 1970s, by stopping smoking and convincing their patients to stop. They have taken a similar posture with high fructose corn syrup.
Promoting HFCS and other sweeteners is clearly not in the spirit of a physician being an excellent example to patients.
What prompted me to write about this now was a recent email from a dietitian named Cristina Rivera who works for Coca Cola. This was in response to an article I wrote for the Huffington Post and a subsequent interview on MSNBC about the myth that fast food is cheaper than making your own meals.
Here's an excerpt:
When counseling my clients, which include Coca-Cola, I stress the importance of the fact that all food and beverages can be enjoyed in moderation. Instead of discouraging families from choosing quick menu options, perhaps guide them to make better choices. In order to make living healthy a realistic lifestyle change, I encourage my clients to use portion control, and when consuming sugars, including HFCS, to do so in moderation.
This is just plain B.S.. Simple. Like Dr. Rippe saying that consuming high fructose corn syrup is OK, endorsing fast food even in moderation is not something we should be doing.
It's a small point in attitude I suppose. I have a lot of fast food information on the Dr. Gourmet Web site, so you might consider that an endorsement, but that's not the case. I don't endorse the idea that anyone should consume fast food or drink soda. In fact, I say just the opposite, but I am also realistic that people do choose to eat (or drink) the stuff and I want to guide them towards the healthier options.
You should always be suspect when you see "experts" being interviewed on television (and I supposed that would apply to me as well). Consider their motivation, think about how they are funded and what their message is.
To help you understand how wrong Dr. Rippe and Ms. Rivera are, here's some unbiased information about how marketing of fast food as well as soda consumption has contributed to the obesity problem in America:
Fast Food F.A.C.T.S.: Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score
UCLA Center for Health Policy Research: Bubbling Over: Soda Consumption and Its Link to Obesity in California
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.