The Bitter Fight against Sugar

Americans love the sweet taste of sugar. In fact, the FDA estimates that the average American consumes 20 teaspoons of added sugar daily – almost double the recommended maximum (12.5)!

But this love affair comes at a price. The CDC reports that over 1/3 of American adults and 17% of youth are obese. This costs the US medical system approximately $147 billion per year. Moreover, obesity-related conditions like heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes are among the leading causes of preventable death in the United States. You just can’t sugar coat it.

Government officials have taken note and have tried to curb sugar consumption. Yet, progress has been slow as molasses. Hence, this year, governments are pursuing new and more aggressive tactics.

Last week, for example, the FDA announced a major update to nutritional label requirements on packaged foods. Among other things, food producers will now have to list the grams and percent daily value of added sugar in their foods. They must also indicate the amount of added sugar “per package” and “per serving”, and update serving sizes to reflect what people actually consume. So that 20 oz bottle of coke that you gulp over dinner will now be 1 full serving. The new rules will take effect in July 2018 (or 2019 for small producers).

Of course, not everyone is sweet on the idea. The “outraged” sugar lobby claims the decision is “not grounded in science”, while General Mills argues that labels already feature total sugar counts. But there are also many fans. Michelle Obama, a champion for healthy living, said “I am thrilled…This is going to make a real difference in providing families the information they need to make healthy choices”.  Michael Jacobson, founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, added that new labels should “spur food manufacturers to add less sugar to their products”.

Some cities are going a step further, appealing not to people’s logic but to their wallets. They are imposing a “sugar tax” on each ounce of sugary products. The progressive bastion of Berkeley, California, was the first such city, approving a 1 penny-per-ounce tax in 2014. Other cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Boulder, and Philadelphia are now considering a similar tariff.

In the case of Philadelphia, the mayor has proposed a 3 cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-added drinks, “potentially increasing prices by more than half”. Though the mayor acknowledges the health benefits, he has pitched the tax as a primarily economic measure to reduce healthcare costs and to raise up to $400 million. This money will go to various “services for the city’s needy”, including schools, universal prekindergarten, parks, recreation centers, and libraries.

Some, including presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, have denounced the tax as “regressive”. They note that poor people consume disproportionately high volumes of soda and will therefore shoulder the largest economic burden. However, a nutrition expert at the University of North Carolina maintains that the poor will simply buy less harmful soda, while enjoying improved public services. In the words of the mayor, “There is no downside to this other than that the three major soda companies may make a little less money”. Philadelphia will vote on the tax in June.

Do you want to learn more about sugar and healthy eating? Check out Let’s Move, Shape Up America, Healthy Lifestyle Choices, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, or the Diabetic Youth Foundation.



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