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Australian Paradox under fire: Health experts hit out at Sydney Uni sugar study

Imagine if the amount of sugar you consumed in things like soft drink had nothing to do with how much weight you put on.

Remarkably that is what two of Sydney University's leading researchers found in their 2011 study, The Australian Paradox.

But their much-cited paper has raised questions in the health world and beyond, with many waiting for The Australian Paradox to be revised.

Lateline's Emma Alberici investigated the case for and against sugar.

sugar evilIn The Australian Paradox, Professor Jennie Brand-Miller and Dr Alan Barclay claimed sugar intake had declined for the 30 years to 2010, while at the same time obesity and diabetes had tripled.

The research has been cited 81 times by various academics and journals and it has even been referred to in Federal Parliament.

It has been used to argue against a sugar tax, with the Australian Beverages Council quoting its findings on its website.

Recently, Professor Brand-Miller presented her theory about the harmless nature of added sugar at Sydney University's annual gathering of the world's best science students.

"Something to think about. If it's not the sugar, what is it?" she said.
Australian Paradox graph

But it turned out Professor Brand-Miller and Dr Barclay's data was not quite right. In fact, what they had reported as a fall in consumption of sugar was actually a significant rise.

They had claimed sales of sugary sweetened beverages were down by 10 per cent, but the chart used in their own research actually shows a 29 per cent increase.

After being questioned about it on the ABC's Background Briefing, a correction was issued in the online journal in which The Australian Paradox was published.

In 2014, an external inquiry into The Australian Paradox by one the country's top scientists, Professor Robert Clark AO, cleared Professor Brand Miller and Dr Barclay of misconduct, but it did observe that Dr Barclay's acceptance of a fee from Coca-Cola might not have demonstrated good judgment.

The inquiry recommended a revised paper be published, clarifying the key factual issues examined.

Two years later, the paper still has not been revised.

Professor Brand-Miller says that is because she is waiting for new data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that will analyse sugar consumption from national health surveys.

The former 'fatty' turned anti-sugar advocate

Five years ago, Rory Robertson was a self-described "fatty".

Soft drink and junk food were regular parts of his diet and he struggled to keep up with his two young sons.

That was until someone suggested he cut out sugar. In the space of eight months he dropped 10 kilograms.

"Take the sugar out of your diet, you lose the weight easily and you have a happy life. That's where I am today," he said.

When he read an article about The Australian Paradox he was shocked and decided to investigate further.

Mr Robertson is a respected economist with one of the country's biggest banks and he was recruited to work for the Reserve Bank under its Governor Glenn Stevens.

He saw big problems with the data used in The Australian Paradox and has spent the past five years trying to understand why two of Sydney University's most high-profile scientists continue to argue that there was a consistent and substantial decline in sugar consumption.

Mr Robertson wants a retraction of the paper, saying it is a menace to public health, and he has even offered $40,000 to anyone who can prove he is wrong. The money has gone unclaimed since 2012.

"It's true I've been a determined pest on this matter but it was shocking to me that the highest levels of nutrition science in Australia not only can publish whatever nonsense they want, but no-one really has helped me in promoting a retraction of the paper," he said.

Mr Robertson is also concerned that Professor Brand-Miller and Dr Barclay defend sugar in their best-selling diet book promoting Sydney University's Glycemic Index Foundation.

The GI Foundation receives $6,000 from food companies every time they want a low GI health tick on one of their products, and some of the products that carry the tick include Milo, breakfast cereals and raw sugar.
The health experts

Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition and Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, is one of the world's leading health experts.

"Sugar is just as bad for you in Australia as it is here in the US. There's no Australian Paradox," she told Lateline.

Earlier this year, Professor Nestle spent two months at Sydney University's Charles Perkins Centre delivering lectures on the perils of food industry-funded research.

She was surprised to learn that the scientists working with the University's GI Foundation were receiving money for giving products the low GI "tick".
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"I don't know what to say about the Glycemic Index. People don't eat individual foods, they eat mixes of foods and that changes when you mix foods you get some kind of mixture of glycemic indices," she said.

"When I was in Australia I was extremely amused to see a logo from the Glycemic Index Foundation on a pound of plain ordinary sugar... it had a sticker on it saying it was "better for you".

"Better for me than what? Than white sugar? [It] just doesn't make any nutritional sense to me."

Dr Rosemary Stanton is a nutritionist who has more than 50 years experience.

Lateline asked Dr Stanton what she thought of The Australian Paradox.

"I'd say, ignore it," she said.

Wavne Rikkers analysed the data in The Australian Paradox in her role as a senior researcher at the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth.

"Our research shows that the Australian Paradox paper was based on inaccurate data," she said.

Lateline has been in contact with Professor Brand-Miller since early last year about her research. She has not been available for an interview, but she did answer some questions by email.

She said the findings in the Australian Paradox paper were "more valid than ever".

Lateline also sought comments from Sydney University Vice Chancellor Michael Spence and Dr Barclay, but had no response from them.

http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-13/the-australian-paradox:-experts-hit-out-at-sydney-uni-study/7319518

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