Australia’s farcical dietary guidelines get Four Corners treatment

By Leith van Onselen

Over the past few years, I have called for an overhaul of Australia’s dietary guidelines, including Australia’s Health Star Rating System, which has too often ignored the prevalence of sugar while demonising natural saturated fats.

Classic examples of this idiocy are illustrated in the below examples (photographed at my local super market) showing sugar laden foods given healthy ratings, while natural foods containing so-called ‘unhealthy’ saturated fats are given low ratings.

First, consider reconstituted apple juice, which contains a whopping 26.8 grams of free sugars per serve, but receives a 5-star health rating:


Next, here’s a highly processed box of cereal, like the one shown below, which receives a healthy 4-star rating and the Heart Foundation Tick despite containing 23.5% sugar:

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And how about a processed sugary chocolate-flavoured “Up and Go” milkshake, which contains 19.3 grams of sugar per serve, receive a healthy 4.5 star health rating?

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Next, until very recently, Milo received a healthy 4.5 star health rating when it is made up of nearly half sugar:

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And here’s a sugary processed “Roll-up”, which contains 26.7% sugar, but somehow still managed to receive a 3-star rating:

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On the flipside, where is the logic or evidence to support giving natural virgin coconut oil – chock full of beneficial medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) – a half star rating because it is 90% saturated fat:


Or giving natural full fat Greek yogurt only 1.5 stars, because it contains ‘high’ saturated fat (but zero added sugar):

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Tonight, ABC’s Four Corners will present a report entitled “Tipping the Scales: Sugar Politics and What’s Making us Fat”, which investigates the power of Big Sugar and its influence on public policy. Below is a teaser from ABC News:

Australia still has no national obesity strategy.

What we do have are two key federal programs — the Healthy Food Partnership to encourage healthy eating, and the Health Star rating, a front-of-pack labelling system.

But the rules for these two initiatives have been set by committees made up of government and public health advocates, as well as food industry representatives.

According to one insider who spoke to Four Corners, “the reality is that industry is … making most of the policy”, and public health advocates are only included “so we can have the least-worst solution”…

From its role in shutting down debate about a possible sugar tax to its involvement in the controversial health star rating system, the industry has been remarkably successful in getting its way…

Companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Unilever, Nestle and Kelloggs have a seat at the table setting the policies that shape consumption of their own sugar-laced products.

As Australia’s obesity and diabetes rates continue to soar, public health advocates have told Four Corners the industry has been obstructing and delaying policy outcomes that would lead to better health.

And they have likened their tactics to those deployed by the tobacco industry.

Is there any wonder why sugar consumption is sky-high in Australia, and ‘diabesity’ is a growing epidemic, when our nutritional science establishment and public policy largely ignores sugar’s infestation within our food?

The sensible public policy position should be to encourage Australians to avoid packaged and processed foods in favour of natural whole foods, since these are almost always the healthier option.

As an aside, if you want a clear explanation of the genesis of Australia’s dietary guidelines (which were passed down from the US), make sure that you watch the below presentation by Dr Zoe Harcombe, who wrote her entire Cambridge PhD thesis on the topic:

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Leith van Onselen
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  1. demonising or lionising any given macronutritient or food item is missing the point of nutrition: healthfulness is predominantly about caloric restriction. as long as a person is meeting all of their micro nutritional requirements not being fat is the single most healthy thing you can do to your body. this is achieved by avoiding caloric surplus. obesity/adipose tissue surplus is the master variable in most non-smoking lifestyle related health problems, not saturated fats, sugar, carbs, or whatever food the nutrition gestapo have decided to demonise at any given time.

    obviously too much sugar is no good, but health guidelines need to communicate the importance of not eating too many calories much more than they need to focus on the effects of specific foods.

    • “Health guidelines need to communicate the importance of not eating too many calories much more than they need to focus on the effects of specific foods”.

      I disagree. The hormonal impacts of foods is much more important than their calorie content. I’d take 500 calories from brocolli or macadamia nuts over 250 calories from choc chip cookies. It’s also very hard to overeat when you eat natural foods, regardless of their macronutrient make-up.

      Calorie counting generally doesn’t work – at least in the medium to long-term – because it resets your metabolic rate lower. This is the key problem with the calorie hypothesis – it accounts for calories in, not changes in calories out (independent of excercise). Dr Jason Fung’s brilliant book, The Obestit Code, deals with this issue in detail.

      Just eat real food.

      • i agree there is some room for hormonal effects and thermic effects etc, but i think ultimately CICO (calories in calories out) is king, and the rest is just overcomplication. obviously counting calories is not going to be something the vast majority of people will ever do (i do it, but i have too much time on my hands) so your “just eat whole foods” kind of advice is definitely what people need. but the point remains: people need to understand that “too much food” is the big problem, whether that’s sugar or saturated fats. a lot of people don’t understand this, which is why they think it’s alright to binge eat bacon on their atkins diet or sugar otherwise and think they won’t get fat from it.

        excellent resources here:

      • If you eat mostly fiber rich whole foods its almost impossible to over consume calories. You don’t need a fad diet, don’t need to count carbs, your digestive system does the work for you. Any sort of refinement to food, whether its fats, sugars, grain based carbs, means your digestive system needs to do less work to extract the same amount of energy. Don’t forget that digestion itself consumes energy so it is not simple calories in – calories out. It is calories in – calories used for digestion – calories out. And a lot of the work of digestion is done by gut microbes in a healthy digestive system, and waste gases farted out,

      • He looks like another quack selling a fad diet, although maybe it works by accident.

        Just eat less processed foods, its that simple. You need an appropriate ratio of fiber to calories. The more that food is ground, blended, squeezed, concentrated. simmered, dehydrated, the lower will be that ratio. Refined sugar is the ultimate expression of this. If you tried to eat raw sugar cane to get energy, it would be like a panda bear trying to digest bamboo – you would need an awful lot to maintain a survival diet. However with mechanical processing, concentration and refining its a different story.

      • Dan,

        Not sure what video you are referring to but what you recommend is effectively a low refined carbohydrate diet that does not stimulate over production of insulin.

        Which is exactly what those videos are talking about.

    • The calorie is just a calorie model is to industrial food processors what freedom of choice was to the peddlers of tobacco based nicotine delivery systems.

      The obesity and diabetes epidemic is the result of encouraging a couple of generations to damage their metabolic systems with highly refined and sweetened carbohydrates.

      The source of calories is much more important than trying to control them by counting.

      Get the sources right and you don’t need to count.

    • Alexandra Chapman

      A “calorie is just a calorie” – This has been beautifully debunked by Robert Lustig in “Sugar – the bitter truth”.

      Fructose is a liver toxin. In whole fruit with fibre attached, it is not such an issue. In pure form (sugar is one glucose + one fructose) – it’s highly toxic. This is now the message that is being promoted by UK health authorities – but not here!

  2. Yep

    With an estimated 50% of the U.S. Population showing signs of insulin resistance only clowns would continue to recommend that they continue to eat larger and regular quantities of sugar and refined carbohydrate.

    Very well paid and sponsored clowns that is.

    But then the banks have convinced the public that they are a natural, healthy and fun part of a balanced public monetary system.

    So is any of this really surprising.

  3. I have been Keto for 4 months now. It has changed my life. I was riding the highs and lows of sugar for years, I think i was early signs of diabetes coming on.. all while being a ten year veteran of endurance sports (which rely on carb hits)

    I am astounded that how much sugar is in kids food now.. if adults struggle with their food/sugar how is a kid with zero impulse control and having R and D departments marketing all this garbage right at them going to resist.

    Watch – “That sugar film” and try and enjoy anything with that sugar in it. You wont!

    Sadly big business gets what it wants and these industries rely on products with cheap ingredients, sugar to replact all the flavour, with an ultra long shelf life.

    Anyone who is interested should consider LCHF or keto.

    Good article.

    • Ronin8317MEMBER

      That’s the biggest issue : parents will rely on the health star rating to buy food for their kids thinking it’ll make them grow up healthy. All parent knows something like chocolate is unhealthy and should be limited to occasions, but fruit juice are actually worse than chocolate, and parent will give that to kids every day. The roll-up fruit from Uncle Toby contains so little fruit, it should be called ‘roll-up sugar’ instead.

      • Peter Sutherland

        I’m getting real sick and tired of people saying fructose is the same as refined sucrose. It’s not. Pure and simple.

        The entire vocabulary of science behind most people is nothing more than internet fad – literally, Someone once said there is a lot of sugar in fruit just, and fruit – nekminute – its bad for you.

        Its no where NEAR sucrose.

        There is sugar in lactose – yes, its a sugar. Next thing you know we can’t eat cooked meat because of the sugar – yes, that lovely brown stuff is the result of sugars.

        The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar

        There are all types of sugars, from sucrose to galactose, maltose to lactose. All they are is a form of carbohydrates.An absolutely essential part of our diet.

        The issue surrounding fruit was this absurd notion that because we are extracting the juice we are removing the fiber which means we can consume more and hence take in more sugars. IF you are drinking a liter of fresh juice each day then maybe – and yes sucrose filled artificial juices are bad.

      • Peter,

        “…I’m getting real sick and tired of people saying fructose is the same as refined sucrose. It’s not. Pure and simple…”

        Do you understand that sucrose is a disaccharide made up of 50% glucose and 50% fructose.

        So while people should understand the distinction between sucrose and fructose, the fact remains that in Australia (where HFCS is rarely used) sucrose is the most common source of fructose in the diet.

        So if you think you are avoiding fructose (and the distinctive way it is metabolised in the liver) by eating sucrose you are mistaken.

        As for all the other sugars you referred to they are certainly not fructose but then they are not sucrose either.

      • Replace “parents” with “ignorant fools”.
        Not all parents force feed crap to their children because of some marketing gimmick on food packaging.

      • Not all parents force feed crap to their children because of some marketing gimmick on food packaging.

        You must not have kids. “Force feeding” is not generally something that needs to be done with marketing-intense junk food. “Trying to feed them something else” would be a more apt description.

    • rentsailor, it is interesting that the pre-teen kids of immigrants here are slim – even if the father has a high income. So it is not a lack of money that results in ethnic kids being slim. Just a centuries old diet.

  4. thomickersMEMBER

    I’ve been shortselling BMI recently as part of my new year’s resolution (stock code asx:BMI). the stock price has fallen from $27.50 to $25.20 with very little short covering/dead cat bounces.
    Height: 178cm
    January weight: 87 kgs
    April weight: 80kgs.
    All i’ve changed:
    1) increased fried chicken consumption by 100% (1-2 per week to 3-4 times a week).
    2) increased consumption in bacon, eggs & cheese.
    3) gotten rid of 2 cafes outside my office that sell greasy/processed stuff in bain maries.
    3) slightly reduced the number of ubereats orders (1 per week to 1 per 3-4 weeks).
    What i haven’t changed:
    1) still eating like a pig (same calorie count).
    2) same salad/vegetable consumption.
    3) sports: tennis 2-3 times per week.

    I believe the small changes have resulted in me replacing hidden sugars/bad processed fats with more healthier fats (coming from the korean fried chicken or Sourthern Fried Chicken on waffles). And overall i’ve lost the weight without feeling any more hungrier than before..

    End game, I’m targeting 75kgs. (BMI stock price $23.70)

  5. Yeah, it’s the golden rule – he who has the gold, makes the rules. The sugar lobbyists have lots of gold, and get laws and guidelines made.

    Still, there is too much sugar for people to eat. So they also lobby for turning sugar into ethanol fuel (E10), which servos are forced by law to sell and the which the taxpayer subsidizes.

  6. Maybe it’s deliberate and by design, sick, fat people make big pharma and processed food co’s rich. Have you noticed who sponsors the star rating agencies, heart, cancer foundation etc? All vested interests.

  7. The QLD sugar industry must be protected! Those innocent farmers must be permitted to continue to clear, burn, slash and over-fertilise the land.
    They stopped blackbirding, fgs! Now Southerners are saying they’re harming coral and causing obesity & diabetes. Get off their backs!

  8. Nutrition as a science is absolutely piss poor. It can’t tell you anything about what your health outcomes will be other than with huge generalisations. It tends to treat things in ridiculously simple terms i.e. all proteins are the same, a calorie is a calorie etc. It attempts to use “meta-studies” as woefully inadequate compensation for the complete lack of cause-effect knowledge available. The food industry exploits this situation to the max by creating products that use cheap synthetic inputs as substitutes for real food, but can’t be proven unsafe or unnutritious because of the lack of useful science. Therefore they are considered safe / nutritious.

    So the only response to all this IMO is to eat a relatively balanced diet of only natural/real foods and just ignore all the noise. It will be many decades until we reach the point where we actually know the interplay of food and biology with any degree of accuracy.

    • you got it Dave – you are absolutely correct ……………. and why is such a simple truth SO hard for people to work out for them themselves???????????

      God help us ……………….

  9. Jumping jack flash

    As far as I’m aware, feeding fat to rabbits and observing them have high cholesterol, and developing cardiovascular problems associated with it – when fat is not part of their natural diet and they cannot metabolise it very well, if at all – is the basis for most of this crap. In my opinion this is fundamentally flawed, yet it is used as justification for linking saturated fats to obesity and heart disease.

    Fortunately most people have caught on and know that sugar is worse than fat.
    I’m sure both are bad in excess.

  10. robert2013MEMBER

    People eat crap and overeat for the same reasons that they smoke: because it gives you an immediate feeling that gives your brain something else to focus on other than the daily misery in your mind. Do you think it’s a coincidence that as smoking rates have declined, obesity has risen? The number one cause of misery is loneliness and isolation, and those have also been increasing. Fix the problem, not the symptom.

    • The Traveling Wilbur


      And only a question of time until the PBS starts subsidising Facebook subscriptions.

      I.e. it’s​ still about personal choice. Even being miserable is.

      • robert2013MEMBER

        Yes it is about personal choice, but making the right choice requires understanding the choices and their consequences and this knowledge can take many years, even decades, to aquire. It’s far better to have social structures that support human happiness so that people don’t have to think about it so hard. Plus, it’s easier to be happy in a happy community so there are good reasons for everyone to be in on this, and it really is a matter for everyone.

        Also, FYI, greater involvement with online social networking correlates with increased social isolation, loneliness, depression, and thence misery!

  11. kiwikarynMEMBER

    The problem is liability. Worldwide governments are responsible for the food messages delivered. They are the ones who created the food pyramid that recommended high carbohydrate foods as the mainstay of a diet, while avoiding meat and fats as much as possible. They encouraged food manufacturers to strip fat out of foods like dairy and replace them with sugars. As a result they can’t back down on their advice, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the food pyramid is wrong. Its like what would happen if the Govt had told people for 50 years that smoking was healthy for them? If they turn around and go “oh we were wrong” what is their liability for the resulting deaths? That’s why the Govt will never admit that they are wrong, they won’t change their nutritional stance that only fats are bad, sugar is fine.
    One should also look at the medical profession – a Tasmanian doctor was threatened with deregistration for giving low carb diet advice to patients, and if he wants to keep his licence he is now banned from providing diet information.