By Gretchen Goldman
Sugar: we think of it as a sweet treat, but it is everywhere in our diets because manufacturers add it to many processed foods, even where we might not expect it, from crackers to salad dressing. A Yoplait Light strawberry yogurt, for example, contains more than two teaspoons of sugar, and many name-brand breads contain a teaspoon of sugar per slice. Scientific evidence has shown that overconsumption of sugar—whether from corn syrup, sugar cane, or sugar beets—doesn’t just lead to tooth decay, but to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension as well.
Yet most Americans—even those trying to eat healthfully—consume much more sugar than dietary guidelines recommend, and our food policies do not reflect the scientific evidence on this health risk. Why? As UCS explains in two new reports released this spring, sugar interests—food and beverage manufacturers along with various trade associations, front groups, and public relations firms—have actively sought to block policies that would address health risks, thus ensuring that Americans' overconsumption of sugar continues.
Adopting Tactics from the Tobacco Playbook
A major factor that has kept us in the dark about sugar’s detrimental impacts is the role that industry has played in keeping it that way. By using many of the same tactics employed by the tobacco industry to obscure smoking's health risks, sugar interests have intentionally deceived the public about their product’s risks. (Interestingly, several major processed food companies have been owned by tobacco companies.)
Industry tactics often remain hidden within the confines of internal company records, but on occasion the details are brought to light. In January 2014, such an opportunity arose when a court battle between two trade groups with interests in sugar led to the public release of a large quantity of internal documents (see the sidebar below) that offered a glimpse into the industry’s thinking and actions. These informed our reports Sugar-coating Science, which explores how advertising, marketing, and public relations have been used to deceive the public, and Added Sugar, Subtracted Science, which reveals how the industry has intentionally interfered with the science and policy around our sugar consumption.
Some of the tactics uncovered by our analysis include:
Interfering with the science. Sugar interests have attempted to discredit or downplay the scientific evidence, and intentionally spread misinformation, about sugar's health impacts. They have hired their own scientists and paid seemingly independent scientists to speak on behalf of the industry and its products. And they have worked to influence the academic community at scientific meetings and through the scientific literature. The Sugar Association, which represents sugar cane and sugar beet producers and refiners, threatened to find ways to withdraw the World Health Organization's funding when the WHO released a scientific report recommending that people get no more than 10 percent of their calories from sugar. The Corn Refiners Association, which represents high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) interests, paid two academic scientists to promote HFCS and dispel any health concerns raised by the public or health experts. More examples can be found in Added Sugar, Subtracted Science.
Deceptive marketing strategies. Sugar interests have invested billions of dollars in misleading and exploitative—or even blatantly false—advertising to promote their products. As we describe in Sugar-coating Science, Coca-Cola was recently sued for misrepresenting the nutritional and health qualities of its Vitaminwater line of “enhanced” waters. Despite a sugar content comparable to that of soda, Vitaminwater was marketed as a natural and healthy beverage—claims unsubstantiated by the scientific evidence.
Undermining policy efforts. Sugar interests have worked to influence our democratic processes in order to fight public policies meant to address sugar overconsumption. When El Monte and Richmond, CA, proposed taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages in 2012, the American Beverage Association and other groups spent a combined $3.5 million in the two towns to defeat the measures. These groups hid much of their involvement in the debate, hiring community spokespersons without disclosing these affiliations and playing on existing class and racial tensions in the communities in order to make the defeat of the proposals appear organic and community-driven.
Sugar Content for a "Healthy" Meal
Added sugar in seemingly helthy foods makes low-sugar meal choices difficult. As the table shows, the sugar contained in this meal exceeds the World Health Organization's recommendation for an entire day.
Adding Science to Added-Sugar Policy
All told, the efforts of sugar interests have confused the public and put intense pressure on policy makers not to act on measures that would curb consumption of added sugars. Despite these barriers, some cities and states have defied this pressure and taken positive steps through better nutrition policies and by encouraging healthy lifestyles. New York City, for example, has launched an aggressive campaign to reduce sugar consumption. But much more can be done to promote better public health outcomes using the current scientific evidence on sugar’s adverse health effects.
Positive change is also on the horizon at the federal level. In February, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a rule that would require nutrition labels to include added sugar. This would empower consumers with the knowledge of just how much sugar has been added to their food (as opposed to the sugars that are naturally present, as in fruit and dairy). More than 21,000 UCS supporters submitted comments in support of this rule, and we are actively fighting against industry efforts to weaken it.
Our reports outline recommendations for how scientists and public health experts, investors, decision makers, the media, and the public can hold sugar interests accountable for their efforts to obscure the science on sugar and its detrimental health effects. We also outline steps decision makers at federal, state, and local agencies can take to engage in transparent and science-informed discussions and to develop regulations that promote our health and welfare by limiting added sugar. Ultimately, our food policy should prioritize public health over profit.
Gretchen Goldman is a lead analyst in the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS. Read more from Gretchen on our blog, The Equation.
Photos: Shutterstock.com/Sunny Forest (sugar); © Huntington Creative/David Michalak ("healthy" food); © iStockphoto.com/sampsyseeds (candy)