A sweet tale

What the Sugar Lobby is trying to hide from you and who benefits from confusing nutrition labels.

Initially, I had planned to talk in this blogpost about how to replace some harmful foods described last week with delicious and guilt-free alternatives. But then I found myself going down a rabbit hole into the sugar industry, lobby and government groups. I gave in and decided to let my mind take its path.

Sugar on Nutrition Labels

You know that typical nutrition facts on any food label give you percentages for daily recommended dosages. Right? Have you ever noticed that this information is missing for sugar? Go, take a look.

Ok, I’m going to make it easy and show you a typical label. This one is from TreeTop Apple Juice:

sugar apple juice.jpg

It’s obvious right? And feel free to look around. I guarantee you that you won’t find recommended daily dosages for sugar anywhere.

On top of that, did you know that food manufacturers are not required to specify any sugar alcohols (sweeteners and anything on the ingredient list ending in -sol)? These are part of the total carbohydrate count, which includes starch (it’s basically just another term for carbs), fiber, sugar and sugar alcohols. So in our example above, there are 3g of extra carbs in the juice. Conveniently unspecified. 

Another fun fact: Has it ever struck you as odd that in the only country left on the planet to vigorously hold on to the imperial over the metric system, nobody ever expressed any concern about using the metric system on food labels? No? Good. You are not meant to notice. For the average American the concept of 1 gram of sugar does not hold much immediate meaning – as opposed to, say, 1 teaspoon of sugar does. These labels are meant to be confusing. Provide all the required information, but do so in as useless a fashion as possible. An informed consumer, is a dangerous one.

Now, in case you are wondering a) why nutrition labels are so confusing and b) what, if any, the recommended dosages for added sugar are, you are in luck. I did some digging and here is the sweet tale as I see it.

The Sugar Lobby

But of course there is such a thing! Sugar accounts for 10 billion dollars in revenue annually and the industry directly employs almost 13,500 people in the US. The sugar industry has been generously donating to both political parties (btw, the only industry favoring Democratic candidates) and it enjoys governmental subsidies that keep US sugar prices artificially at double the price of the world market.

Eat natural sugar!

I’ve spent a blissful, entertaining and enraging evening browsing the sugar lobby’s very own website. Among many other things, I learned that:

sugar is more than a “fun” food ingredient, it’s an essential one as well. Because it’s all-natural, you can consume it with confidence.

Sugar occurs naturally in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, and diary products. But cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, white sugar -the list goes on- that are being used to sweeten highly processed foods, create anything but  natural foods. The sugar lobby is not advocating for you to eat more fruit. They want you to consume their products. And these are used to enhance processed foods such as bread, sweetened or fat-free yoghurt. Or when was the last time you helped yourself to a delicious glass of natural high-fructose corn syrup?

There is no food like sweet food

The website goes on to suggest that sugar is the key factor to actually enjoy eating. Virtually any food’s flavor can, and in fact should be, enhanced by sugar. This includes vegetables and meat, brining, salt-curing, dry rubs and pickling.

Sugar makes many nutritious foods taste better (whole grain bread, yogurt and cereals for example).

Lo and behold, any “good” foods might actually taste reasonable or even delicious without the aid of sugar. As my mother always said and as the German proverb goes: Medicine needs to be bitter to be effective. Naturally, this wisdom is true for foods as well. Sugar to the rescue!

Sugar-related illnesses are a myth

But of course the industry does not expect you to simply believe them. Its very own World Sugar Research Organisation (WSRO) backs them up. In their own words, it is an

international scientific research organisation globally supported by the sugar industry […] committed to upholding the fundamental principles of science and to relying solely on objective science in its programmes.

As an academic myself, I am frankly at a loss to understand how scientific research can be impartial if it is funded by an organization with high-profile stakes in the outcome of the studies. It basically means answering the question before even asking it. That way, you are able to shape the experimental setup and intermittent questions in ways that invariably will lead towards the preferred conclusion. How convenient.

Take a study on diabetes and sugar. According to the WSRO,

there is no need for people who have diabetes to avoid sugar in their diet.

Instead, the effects of weight loss and exercise have been proven to reduce the effects of diabetes and its onset.

Right.

Just don’t think about how eating way too much sugar and carbs got you obese in the first place and that soft drinks have indeed been linked to the development of type2 diabetes , to name just one.

The WSRO goes on to debunk any “myths” related to sugar and weight management (fat has more calories than sugar, in order to follow a fat-free diet, you need to make the food edible with sugar), sugar and dental caries (no, it is only poor dental hygiene that leads to caries, not sugar – this one actually caught some attention when recommendations on how to prevent caries, did not include dietary advice), and sugar and heart disease (these are not related. Just trust us).

The sugar lobby is an immensely powerful organization. It influences politics and health advice and has been very successful in advocating research to prove them right. The question is, in this health- and diet conscious time, can they continue to do so?

Sugar-level recommendations

The World Health Organization (WHO) has worked on including daily recommended dosages for sugar since 2003. For 13 years the sugar lobby has rigorously opposed any such measures. Their reasoning? There is not enough science to back it up.  Sugar has simply become the “new cholesterol” – a convenient scapegoat for the nation’s health problems. As long as we don’t have ‘hard’ scientific evidence, no recommendations should be made as to not confuse the American public.

Poor, blissfully unaware, American public.

I, for one, am glad that a billion-dollar industry with high stakes in my continuing sugar consumption, writes it onto their banners to review decades of scientific research. All just so that I may not be woefully confused. Thank you.

Small victories

Despite all the sugar lobby’s hard work, in March 2015, the WHO announced its recommendations for daily added sugar doses, followed in January 2016 by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee of the United States. These do not include any naturally occurring sugars in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. 

The recommended amount by the WHO is between 5 and 10%, and in the US no more than 10% of your total daily calorie intake. Let me break this down for you:

You can calculate your daily caloric needs here. For me the base is about 2,000 calories:

  • One teaspoon of sugar contains 16 calories.
  • 5% of 2,000 calories are 100 calories
  • 10% of 2,000 calories are 200 calories
  • This means , you may consume between 6 and 12 teaspoons of added sugar per day.

Confused? Good! Again, you are meant to be. Because you still don’t know how much of the Apple Juice from above you should drink in a day. Remember, labels are in grams not teaspoons. So lets continue:

  • There are four grams of sugar in a teaspoon.
  • This means you may consume between 24 and 48 grams of added sugar in a day.

This equals about one carton of the Apple Juice (22g). Or two 8oz bottles of Gatorade (28g). Or either five (if you only calculate the sugar labeled) or less than two Oreo Cookies (if you assume that the entire 25g of carbs on the label are sugar, alcohol sugar and starches). Or either five (sugar only) or just over one (all the carbs) small serving box of Kellogs Frosties.

I could go on. And I encourage you to do so. Here is a good breakdown of Nutritional Information for many foods.

Happily ever…?

I won’t go into talking about some nutritionists’ recommendations for completely eliminating all added sugar intake and replace it with real sugar in fruit and honey. I just wanted to get this off my chest. And maybe make you think a bit about  who influences what you eat, what you actually eat, and how to break the cycle. Good luck.

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