Activist Guide Against Deceiving Food Labels, False Sugar Statements, and Misleading Advertisements

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Vishen Lakhiani has taken on the mission to fight obesity and stand up against the deceiving marketing practices of big food companies in Malaysia. Labeling products with sugar as their number one ingredient as “healthy choices” should not be possible anymore in this day and age. Especially, now nearly half of the country is reportedly suffering from obesity.

This is the activist guide for anyone – from people working at governments or food companies, to journalists and concerned consumers – who wish to join the movement with Vishen, raise public awareness of the damaging effects of sugar on the body, and demand honest food labeling.

Watch the video above with Vishen’s talk about the causes for concern and uncover the lie that most people are conveniently believing.

From Fattest Country in Asia to One of the Healthiest in the World

The goal of Vishen’s awareness campaign is to turn Malaysia from the fattest country in Asia into one of the healthiest countries in the world in 10 years’ time.

To reach this goal, he is involving global health care and nutrition experts such as Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, who says “Milo” ads in South East Asia “border to criminal,” and American performance expert Steven Kotler, who counters the myth that you would “need” sugar for enhanced performance.

Why Beliefs on Obesity Are Outdated in Malaysia

The vast majority of people in the world have bought into a lie that is making us sicker, says Vishen in his presentation.

It’s the lie that exercise is the main contributor to weight loss, and that eating fat is responsible for obesity rather than sugar. In reality, what you eat is most important in this matter, and sugar and processed foods are the biggest contributors to people becoming – and staying – overweight.

The insufficient knowledge about food and nutrition in combination with misleading labeling and food advertising is leading to an increasing amount of people facing obesity in Malaysia.

(…) some nutritionists say Malaysia’s dietary guidelines (…) are not as tough on sugar as they might otherwise be. They tell people to load up on grains and cereals and to limit fat to less than 20 to 30 percent of daily calories, a recommendation that was removed from dietary guidelines in the United States in 2015 after evidence emerged that low-fat diets don’t curb obesity and may contribute to it.

– Thomas Fuller, Anahad O’Connor, and Matt Richtel, New York Times 

The public knowledge about nutrition needs to level up.

The fact that there can be “Healthy Choice” labels on food and beverages that are extremely high in sugar is comparable to the marketing practices of cigarettes in the first half of the twentieth century.

Vishen: “What we’re gonna find five years from now is that sugar is as bad as tobacco, potentially worse, but we haven’t woken up to it yet.”

"Healthy Choice" labels
Old cigarette marketing with health claims

Make-Believe Illnesses Like “Energy Gaps”

And it goes further than improper food labeling in South East Asia, as food marketers are even introducing make-believe illnesses to stimulate the sales of their products.

The claim made in the advertisement below is that 4 out of 5 children suffer from “energy gaps.” A condition that’s supposedly best solved by drinking a beverage that contains a lot of sugar. Every day.

the energy gap
Marketing with make-believe illness

This is one of the most blatant violations of truth in marketing and advertising that I have ever seen. It borders on criminal.

– Dr. Mark Hyman

Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, is one of America’s top experts on nutrition and the doctor to Hilary Clinton, has written many bestsellers on the topics of health and nutrition, and his upcoming book is called Food: What The Heck Should I EatHe calls it one of the most blatant lies in marketing, that borders on criminals.

When you’re giving your kids sugary drinks like Milo or Coca-Cola, you’re essentially giving them something that’s toxic, makes them obese, and can cause things like acne and pimples.

And not only that, sugar is now known to actually reduce children’s cognitive functioning.

Dr. Hyman elaborates how sugar is not aiding, but detrimental to the performance of children, as it takes them up and down a rollercoaster of insulin:

You’ll make them hyperactive, and irritable, and cranky. (…) Because their insulin goes up, their sugar goes down, then they need more, and then they’ll go up, they’ll go down.  All day long on a rollercoaster of sugar and insulin, which makes them unable to really focus and learn.

– Dr. Mark Hyman

In America, this sugar-induced state is referred to as the “achievement gap.” This is what children experience when they frequently consume sugary drinks and processed foods: an inability to focus and study, which leads to poor school performance, resulting in poor paying jobs, and thus, their whole lives are affected by it.

“Sugar is poison to the human body when taken in large doses,” says Vishen.

High-performance expert Steven Kotler, author of books such as The Rise of SupermanAbundanceA Small Furry Prayer, and the founder of the Flow Genome Project, says he has “never heard of something like an energy gap whatsoever.”

Steven explains how the body’s energy goes up and down as it’s a homeostatic system. He understands that people have the idea that there are these “energy gaps” throughout the day, but the way to fix that is not by drinking a lot of sugar:

Essentially, you’re gonna get a tiny little spike in energy followed by a very deep crash. You’re not revitalizing the system. And if you wanna get that high again, you’re gonna have to drink more sugar. You’re gonna pinball yourself up and down.

– Steven Kotler

The best advice Steven can give is this: “If you’re tired and you’ve got an ‘energy gap,’ take a nap.”

To amplify performance, Steve says, people should simply get enough sleep.

Steven states, although he is not a nutritionist, he is an expert on human performance and for flow states, there may not be a diet plan, but there is something called basic common sense: “Eat lots of fruit and vegetables, lots of natural foods, more fish than meat, stay away from processed food and try to stay away from excess sugar.”

Milo has the same glycemic index as Coke. And many people use more than the recommended amount on the label. Definitely toxic.

– Dr. Mark Hyman

The Convenient Lie That Serves Big Food Companies

If you want to lose weight, exercise is the way to go. At least, that was the old tenet.

The latest science actually shows that although exercise is good for your body to stay fit and it will make your muscles stronger, it does not make you lose weight as much as a healthy diet does.

95 percent of your body shape is determined by what you eat.

Only about 5 percent of weight loss can be attributed to exercise.

Many people still buy into the idea that weight loss is caused by exercise. This is a convenient lie that serves big food companies and fitness centers.

Exercise serves you very well for your fitness, but it is not that important for weight loss.

If one is overweight or obese, and presumably trying to lose dozens of pounds, it would take an incredible amount of time, will, and effort to make a real impact through exercise.

There are many studies done on how the body uses its energy and how exercise could contribute to weight loss, and the fact that the body adjusts its metabolic rate when you exercise more, is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to lose weight by exercising alone:

There are three main components to energy expenditure, Kravitz explained: 1) basal metabolic rate, or the energy used for basic functioning when the body is at rest; 2) the energy used to break down food; and 3) the energy used in physical activity.

We have very little control over our basal metabolic rate, but it’s our biggest energy hog. “It’s generally accepted that for most people, the basal metabolic rate accounts for 60 to 80 percent of total energy expenditure,” Kravitz said. Digesting food accounts for about 10 percent.

That leaves only 10 to 30 percent for physical activity, of which exercise is only a subset. (You can read more about this concept here and here.)

“It’s not nothing, but it’s not nearly equal to food intake — which accounts for 100 percent of the energy intake of the body,” Kravitz said. “This is why it’s not so surprising that exercise leads to [statistically] significant, but small, changes in weight.”

Julia Belluz and Javier Zarracina, Vox

“So stop saying it’s exercise,” says Vishen, “It’s about improving the food environment. Watching what you eat and staying away from fake food is what makes you lose weight.”

Fancy Names for Sugar People Need to Be Cautious Of

As the damaging effects of sugar began to surface globally, and more and more people started to eat healthier, food marketers started to get smarter. They’d brainstorm on new, alternative names they could introduce for sugar and they’ve come up with many fancy names.

The makers of That Sugar Film published a list with 60 different names for sugar that you can now read on food packaging all across the globe.

60 names for sugar
List as published on

All of these ingredients are sugar too.

SugarScience, the authoritative source for evidence-based, scientific information about sugar and its impact on the health of The University of California San Francisco reveals the “unsweetened truth” about sugar and warns that “manufacturers add sugar to 74% of packaged foods sold in supermarkets.”

SugarScience also says that growing scientific evidence shows that too much-added sugar, over time, is linked to diabetes, heart disease, and liver disease.

While product labels list total sugar content, manufacturers are not required to say whether that total includes added sugar, which makes it difficult to know how much of the total comes from added sugar and how much is naturally occurring in ingredients such as fruit or milk. That makes it very difficult to account for how much added sugar we’re consuming.

– Abstract from Hidden in Plain Sight. SugarScience

Any food or drink which predominantly or in a large part consists of sugar is not healthy.

Or, as one of Malaysia’s top health bloggers told Vishen, “Anything that has sugar as the number one ingredient, just don’t put it in your body.”

In order for anyone to be able to make healthy food decisions complete and transparent information on the food labels is required. When sugars are hidden unrecognizably in most packaged foods, it’s a difficult choice to make.

How to Create More Awareness on the Dangers of Sugar?

“We need to start a conversation on all foods that are pushed,” says Vishen, as “the information put out in Malaysia is very, very, very, obsolete.”

Below 5 suggestions to help you take action:

1. Educate yourself

It’s important to understand the damaging effects sugar has on the body, to what extent current food labeling practices are dishonest and/or incomplete, and why marketing practices can have such a big impact on the health of consumers. It will be hard to join the conversation otherwise.

Tips for further reading:

  1. In Asia’s Fattest Country, Nutritionists Take Money From Food Giants – New York Times
  2. In Sweeping War on Obesity, Chile Slays Tony the Tiger – New York Times
  3. Fatty and Sugary Foods Are As Addictive As Cocaine And Nicotine, Warn Health Experts – The Huffington Post
  4. Why you shouldn’t exercise to lose weight, explained with 60+ studies – Vox
  5. Diabetes prevalence Malaysia – The World Bank

And start reading food labels yourself more frequently to see how many different fancy names for sugar you can detect in your groceries.

2. Educate others

Once you’ve digested the information, it’s time to start spreading the word. 

Is there anyone in your closest circle that could potentially make an impact?

Someone that works at any of the food giants and could be open to a discussion about the matter?

If you are a parent with kids who are going to school, why not bring some of the most important findings to their school teachers and other concerned parents? And if you’re a teacher, raise the subject in your class.

As an employee, you can start by checking out your company’s food catering and, if needed, discuss ways to offer more healthy alternatives with your HR department.

Anyone can make a change, even if you’d only succeed in educating your partner, parents, or children.

3. Raise the conversation in your close environment

Even if you are not ready to dive much deeper into the subject to be able to educate others (yet), just raising the topic in your close environment helps too.

Ask your family members what they know about the effects of sugar on the body and whether or not they read the labels of their food and drinks properly.

The first step toward change is awareness.

4. Share this blog post – or any of the articles listed

By sharing the truth about what actually causes obesity and what helps cure it, and by spreading the actual current scientific knowledge on what is good for our bodies and what isn’t, you are potentially helping others make healthier decisions for themselves.

Unless people know what is good for themselves and their children and what isn’t, they won’t make any significant changes in their lifestyle or, from a corporate perspective, in their marketing practices.

If you know anyone who is working in the food industry or government, make them aware of the latest information about what’s healthy and what isn’t.

Ultimately, it is in everyone’s best interest to fight obesity and demand honest information about what you put your in body and that of your children.

5. Use the hashtag #StopSugarCoating

Spread every quote and the fact you can find on the effects of sugar and of dishonest labeling on social media with the hashtag #StopSugarCoating.

This way, we can create a ripple effect online, that can help more and more people uncover information about sugar in relation to obesity and unhealthy food marketing.

Sugar is the new nicotine.

– Vishen Lakhiani


Sofie Angevaare

Sofie Angevaare

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