Lauri Andler / Wikimedia

Sugar as a Battleground

The effects of the use of sugar on people’s health remains a very contentious issue. We wonder: Which of the following statements are true about the public health debate on sugars?

A. The sugar industry has a lot of influence
B. Consumers are shifting toward healthier foods
C. Consumers still consume too much sugar
D. Taxing sugar is complicated

A. The sugar industry has a lot of influence … is true.

The sugar industry has been a major player in funding academic research into the effects of sugar and other dietary choices since the mid-1950s. Critics allege that the purpose of sponsoring studies has been to obscure or raise doubts about the health implications of heavy sugar consumption.

In contrast, sugar companies argue that their goal has been to correct legitimate misconceptions, not suppress science – as the tobacco or oil industries have notoriously done.

The processed food industry and the sugar industry also contend that the addition of sugar to many foods is critical not just to the marketing of their products. They also claim that it makes many foods palatable in the first place and that it preserves them from going bad.

Even so, the industry still finds itself fending off two related accusations: First, that excess sugar in the diet fuels obesity as well as Type 2 diabetes – and second, that sugar specifically, not just excessive intake of any calories, is the cause of these diseases. (These two health effects are associated with higher risk of a range of other chronic diseases.)

Some researchers also speculate that sugar may be truly chemically addictive, with binging, craving, tolerance, withdrawal, reward and opioid effects. They even draw comparisons to cocaine. Other researchers strongly dispute any comparison between sugar and drugs, attributing overconsumption and other behaviors to non-addictive factors.

To fend off too much industry influence at the global level, the WHO limits the early-stage input by relevant industries to its guidelines. However, it invites such input later in “stakeholder” consultations. Sugar industry advocates often emphasize the need for exercise over any dietary changes.

B. Consumers are shifting toward healthier foods … is true.

Marketing experts point to a growing public distrust of the largest food manufacturers, for health and safety reasons. Consumers are turning toward smaller food companies with fresher and healthier options.

This has an impact on the bottom line of major global processed food manufacturers. Companies such as Kraft Heinz and Coca-Cola are experiencing continued declines in sales. Coca-Cola’s soft drink sales reached a 31-year low in 2017.

C. Consumers still consume too much sugar … is also true.

The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that people of a typical body mass consume no more than six teaspoons (25 grams) of “free sugars” (any kind of sugar added into a food or beverage product) per day. That amount is found in just one cup of apple juice or a small fruit yogurt.

In the United States, almost three-quarters of the population consumes more than the recommended limit per day. (The U.S. average is 22 teaspoons per day, close to four times higher than the WHO recommendation.)

It can be hard for consumers to make better health choices for themselves. One reason is confusing labeling and naming conventions for added sugars. “Corn syrup” or “fruit juice concentrates,” to give just two examples for labeling alternatives, may not be immediately obvious to consumers as names for sugar additives.

This is one reason some policymakers favor taxes or regulations to discourage sugars from being added in the first place.

D. Taxing sugar is complicated … is also true.

Taxing sugars, or sugary products, is often proposed. The hope is that this will spur food and beverage makers to develop new formulas or to discourage buyers from consuming so much.

However, in contrast with taxing tobacco products, which is often seen as the model, taxing food or beverages with sugars is a far more complex undertaking.

Owing to the existence of many different types of sugars, including both those naturally occurring in certain foods and those added later, there are many competing lobbying interests. This includes fruit growers, vegetable farmers, cane sugar growers, syrup harvesters and others.

All of them are trying to protect their own sugar products, while aiming to suppress rival products. This also explains why cross-border trade controls are particularly intense on sugar compared to other commodities.

At present, different sugars are already governed by a wide range of taxes, subsidies and import tariffs – even before a specific health-oriented regime can be developed.

There is also disagreement on whether or not specific end-products rich in sugar, such as soft drinks, should be taxed or if the taxes should fall more directly on sugar producers instead. If soft drinks are taxed, what about fruit juice?

Also, taxing by product is bound to have uneven effects on consumers of various income levels. Soft drinks are generally consumed by those less able to afford or access healthier options.

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