There was one product in particular that it had a dramatic effect on — soft drinks. Hank Cardello, the former head of marketing at Coca-Cola, tells me that in 1984, Coke in the US swapped from sugar to high fructose corn syrup (in the UK, it continued to use sugar). As a market leader, Coke’s decision sent a message of endorsement to the rest of the industry, which quickly followed suit. There was “no downside” to high fructose corn syrup, Cardello says. It was two-thirds the price of sugar, and there were no apparent health risks. At that time, “obesity wasn’t even on the radar,” says Cardello.
But another health issue was on the radar: heart disease, and in the mid-1970s, a fierce debate was raging behind the closed doors of academia over what was causing it. An American nutritionist called Ancel Keys blamed fat, while a British researcher at the University of London, Professor John Yudkin, blamed sugar. But Yudkin’s work was rubbished by what many believe, including Robert Lustig, one of the world’s leading endocrinologists, was a concerted campaign to discredit Yudkin. Much of the criticism came from fellow academics, whose research was aligning far more closely with the direction the food industry was intending to take. Yudkin’s colleague at the time, Richard Bruckdorfer at UCL says: “There was a huge lobby from [the food] industry, particularly from the sugar industry, and Yudkin complained bitterly that they were subverting some of his ideas.” Yudkin was, Lustig says, “thrown under the bus,” because there was a huge financial gain to be made by fingering fat, not sugar, as the culprit of heart disease.
The food industry had its eyes on the creation of a new genre of food, something they knew the public would embrace with huge enthusiasm, believing it to be better for their health — “low fat.” It promised an immense business opportunity. But, says Lustig, there was a problem. “When you take the fat out of a recipe, food tastes like cardboard, and you need to replace it with something — that something being sugar.”
Overnight, new products arrived on the shelves that seemed too good to be true. Low-fat yogurts, spreads, even desserts and biscuits. All with the fat taken out, and replaced with sugar. Britain was one of the most enthusiastic adopters of what food writer Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, calls “the low-fat dogma.”
By the mid-1980s, health experts such as Philip James, a world-renowned British scientist who was one of the first to identify obesity as an issue, were noticing that people were getting fatter and no one could explain why. The food industry was keen to point out that individuals must be responsible for their own calorie consumption, but even those who exercised and ate low-fat products were gaining weight. In 1966 the proportion of people with a BMI of over 30 (classified as obese) was just 1.2 percent for men and 1.8 percent for women. By 1989 the figures had risen to 10.6 percent for men and 14 percent for women. And no one was joining the dots between high fructose corn syrup and fat.