The Not-so-Sweet Politics of Sugar Consumption

sugar

What do you picture when you think of the food industry in your country?

In the United States, for example, the food industry is dominated by various big corporations that produce processed foods and regulate the production of meat, dairy, and agriculture (for a wonderful book on the American food chains, see The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan). In most highly developed countries like the United States, food is a consumer product. The sad truth is that the bottom line for most food industry corporations is profit, rather than delivery of properly nutritious diets (1). And we, as consumers, have the unfortunate responsibility of educating ourselves and being cognisant of the war being waged against our health at the supermarket. While endless material can be written about any one aspect of the food industry, this post will spotlight one single food: sugar. The sugar industry is becoming known as “Big Sugar” as its various production and marketing tactics come to light (and yes, they mirror those employed by “Big Tobacco”).

I don’t need to tell you that sugar is bad for you. We all know that sugar is linked to serious health conditions that characterise major 21st century causes of death, including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease (2-4). However, the causal role of sugar in the obesity epidemic is still a subject of hot debate today. Part of the trouble is the sugar industry’s major stakeholder role, combined with a lack of high-quality scientific evidence (5): for example, it is difficult to find population “controls” who do not consume sugar, which are needed for a proper examination of sugar’s health effects. The World Health Organisation will soon update its global recommendations for sugar intake, and has commissioned a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of sugar intake on body weight, which was just published open-access two months ago in the British Medical Journal (2). The results of the review suggest that sugar increases body weight through promoting overconsumption of food (2). The addictive sweetness of sugar combined with the general poor quality of direct evidence for sugar’s negative health effects combine to make a marketing dream for sugar companies.

Evidence for the “Big Tobacco”-style marketing tactics used by the sugar industry has recently been uncovered by an American dentist named Christin Couzens. A couple of years ago, Couzens noticed a funny thing while at a dental conference on diabetes and gum disease – sugar was not once mentioned as a cause of either health problem by any of the conference speakers. This incident began her on a journey of research into sugar industry archives. One of the most staggering things Couzens found was documentation of three sugar executives receiving an award called “The Silver Anvil” – for “excellence in the forging of public opinion” (5). In the 1970’s, these men had launched a highly successful campaign to save the public image of sugar when scientific evidence of its ill health effects had begun to emerge – with the eventual end results of the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Associations approving sugar as part of a healthy diet. I’ll save you the full summary: click here to check out the full article published by Couzens along with science writer Gary Taubes.

Clearly, various conflicts of interest stemming back to the sugar industry’s interest in profit have played a role in the current state of things today. It’s crazy that we are still having a scientific debate about the role of sugar in obesity. Recent work published in the British Medical Journal and by proactive health care professionals like Couzens show that our discourse about sugar is still evolving, and may take a positive turn for public health. Keep an eye out for the new forthcoming sugar intake recommendations by the World Health Organisation – what they conclude and how scientists, health care professionals, and most importantly governments respond will be the next key deciding factor on the role in sugar in the public’s health. In the meantime, recognising yourself as a consumer and taking the time to educate yourself about the politics behind the food you eat is the first step toward winning your own battle against big food corporations.

Below are a few related resources that are worth checking out:

Blogs

Sugar Politics: this is the blog that Cristin Couzens began after her research into sugar industry archives. The title says it all, in terms of description.

Food Politics: a long-running and famous blog by Marion Nestle, an American nutritionist and professor. The blog covers the general politics of food in America.

Newspaper Articles

The CBC: A recent Canadian article series on Cristin Couzens’ research

Time: Another recent article comparing Big Soda to Big Tobacco

Salon.com: A brief article summarising a recent report by Harvard researchers estimating that soda may cause of over 180,000 deaths per year, and the response from the American Beverage Association

Documentaries/Videos

Sugar: The Bitter Truth: a talk from an American paediatrician, Robert H. Lustig on the negative health effects of sugar – this video has over 3 million views on YouTube.

The CBC (again): A documentary by the CBC on the political history of sugar. Part 1 and Part 2.

References

1)      Stuckler D, Nestle M. Big Food, Food Systems, and Global Health. PLoS Med 2013; 9(6):e1001242. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001242

2)      Te Morenga L, Mallard S, Mann J. Dietary sugars and body weight: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomised controlled trials and cohort studies. BMJ 2013; 346:e7492 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e7492

3)      Liu S, Willett W, Stampfer MJ, Hu FB, Franz M, Sampson L, et al. A prospective study of dietary glycemic load, carbohydrate intake, and risk of coronary heart disease in US women. Am J Clin Nutr 2000; 71(6):1455-61.

4)      Malik VS, Popkin BM, Bray GA, Despres J-P, Willett WC, Hu FB. Sugar-sweetened beverages and risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes: a meta-analysis. Diab Care 2010; 33(11):2477-83.

5)      Willett WC, Ludwig DS. Science souring on sugar. BMJ 2013; 346:e8077. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e8077

6)      Taubes G, Kearns Couzens C. Mother Jones [Internet]. San Francisco: Mother Jones; November/December 2012 [cited 2013 March 28]; Available from: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign

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6 Responses to The Not-so-Sweet Politics of Sugar Consumption

  1. Pingback: The worst thing you can eat is sugar. - Public Health

  2. Pingback: A sugar cube | Academic Curiosity

  3. Pingback: Nutrition Research Lab | Politics of Sugar Consumption

  4. francine says:

    Thanks for your blog but we know that all profit boils down to power, greed and lust. All of us have a circle of friends who we can influence. It is easier to influence them, of course, with evidence but they must want to hear the evidence and better yet do something with the evidence. Since many Americans have a “sweet tooth” what would you suggest as the least harmful sugar substitute ( and yes, all of them have its own set of effects).

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  5. Doc Eeks says:

    Nice article! I don’t think, however, the causal pathway to “sugar” being “bad” for you has ever, or will ever, be established. If sugar encourages people to eat more, which I believe it can, then it goes back to an over-consumption of calories being bad for us. That implies that people who eat sugar modestly, or even in conjunction with a low-calorie diet, should fair okay. If you go back to basic biology, the Kreb’s cycle, it IS glucose that our cells use to make energy, so to sort of label sugar as “bad,” is against basic biology. We need sugar- It still remains the basic energy unit for our cells. I think the main issue is ingesting more calories than we need- a problem innate to the developed world. Sure, sugar can cause people to eat more ( be addicted, etc.) but so can stress, availability, boredom and a sedentary lifestyle. We’re just taking in TOO much. As Chris Rock, the comedian so eloquently put it, you don’t see these lactose-intolerant-IBS-Gluten-free-Sugar-is-the-Enemy issues in the developing world. Sugar isn’t the enemy- the excess of sugar, as the excess of almost anything? Sure.

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  6. Katherine Chipman says:

    Very interesting post. I decided to go off sugar more than a year ago. I still eat things that may have sugar as a less-significant ingredient, but I don’t eat deserts or “sweets.” I did this as a personal challenge. I have really enjoyed it. It gets easier and easier with time. :)

    I am a public health major. I found your article very interesting because I think that sugar is one of topics that is not discussed as having health consequences very often. Thanks again for sharing.

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