Expert: Bermuda needs to act to prevent diabetes epidemic

  • Dr Robert Lustig

    Dr Robert Lustig

Reality is that fresh foods are more expensive

It’s no secret that the US food industry capitalises on the “sweet tooth” of consumers by packing processed food with sugar.
But Butterfield and Vallis CEO Spencer Butterfield insisted the local food distributors don’t interfere with the pricing of processed food over healthy food.
“The recent trend has been toward healthy foods and we have seen increased demands for fresh produce and meats, and organics and naturals over the past several years,” he said.
“At the same time, canned and frozen vegetable sales, for example, have been declining. The reality though is that the fresher, healthier foods carry an increased cost both locally and in the US market due to more expensive handling and refrigeration. We’re all aware of electrical costs today so one should understand how keeping fresh products chilled influences the increased cost of that product.”
Bermuda’s distributors “simply source and provide what the consumer demands”, Mr Butterfield said.
He acknowledged that low cost food was “a huge contributor” to deteriorating health, adding: “Education is certainly influencing consumer choices but many people simply can’t or aren’t willing to afford the cost of healthier foods.”

Bermuda faces a healthcare “disaster” if the Island doesn’t rein in its diabetes epidemic, a leading healthcare speaker has warned.

Controversial US medical expert Robert Lustig said at least a quarter of the Island’s population has the disease.

However, Bermuda’s reliance on imported food makes us unique in the battle to turn around our unhealthy diet, Dr Lustig told The Royal Gazette.

“You have got a diabetes pandemic on your hands here,” Dr Lustig told audiences this week courtesy of the Bermuda Diabetes Association.

As healthcare costs keep rising, the surge in expensive treatment for metabolic disease risks derailing Bermuda’s health financing.

“I went into your supermarkets; and found large bags of potato chips for $1.69, while a mango cost $2.99,” the endocrinologist said. “This is exactly the pricing structure that foments diabetes.”

Dr Lustig has drawn flak for insisting that the food industry has deliberately “spiked” 80 percent of US food products with toxic levels of sugar.

“The best way to avoid diabetes is to eat real food,” he said, speculating that Bermuda’s disease level is “even worse” than that of the US.

Obesity in Bermuda is similar to US levels, despite the Island’s relative affluence — very likely because of our “specific food environment that is generated from everything being imported”, he said — especially the importing of processed foods.

Even so, you don’t have to be obese to get diabetes, he said. “My job in coming here is to debunk the last 30 years of propaganda that you’ve been fed. Twenty-five percent of Bermuda has diabetes — this is a disaster, and the sad part is that you’re all at risk.”

But the Island could be a “demonstration project to the world” because food importation is potentially subject to control.

“If distribution can be controlled through societal interventions, then availability of healthy, natural, appropriate foods can be increased, while processed foods can be decreased,” he said.

However, Dr Lustig added that since Bermuda’s food goes through distributors, unhealthy food is promoted because it’s cheaper and easier to sell.

“Where food goes from supplier straight to consumer, you see a standard supply-demand paradigm. But where there is a middleman controlling distribution, that middleman is going to chokehold that distribution to maximise profit.

“That means inflation of prices, and maximisation of those foods which bring the most profit — processed foods, because there is no depreciation.”

He called it “urgent” that Bermuda’s public get educated on the hidden sugar content of common foodstuffs like salad dressing or crackers.

“Education of the populace about the role of nutrition in disease is a primary goal; this is what I was doing in Bermuda this week. Education includes alteration of the food label, and alteration of marketing practices, especially to children, who are a target of the food industry.”

He also suggested a tax on processed food and a subsidy on healthy food, plus restricting access to soda and fruit juice at public venues.

Government could also set “dietary guidelines and limits on nutrient content that companies have to respect”.

Consumers crippled by diabetes could even explore the lawsuit option, Dr Lustig said, adding: “But not around obesity. Obesity is a loser. Diabetes is the issue, because that’s where the money goes. There are several legal theories that could be pursued.

“However, I can’t say whether legal challenges could or would work in Bermuda, as I am not as familiar with your legal system.”

An audience of hundreds turned up for Dr Lustig’s public talk on Tuesday — but his visit also included a private lecture to an audience including Health Minister Pat Gordon-Pamplin and Deputy Premier Michael Dunkley.

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