Would you like some food with your sugar?

Finishing a half marathon yesterday in Silicon Valley the only water available was sugared water (misleadingly labelled "Vitamin Water").  No normal water was available for the runners.  That’s a disturbing new development.  You would have expected that runners would tend to have healthier habits than the population as a whole, so why would we want to drink sugar?

It is almost impossible to buy anything here in the US that is not filled with sugar.  The manufacturers lace sugar into foods that you might not expect to contain sugar – such as a tin of tomatoes or beans, breakfast cereal, bread, orange juice, soy milk, salad dressing, pasta sauces, pickles and crackers. 

And the quantities are large.  Kellogs Crunchy Nut cornflakes are about one-third sugar by weight (about the same as a Pop Tart). 

Why do manufacturers do this? Because sugar tastes nice and is addictive.  You will enjoy the food and come back to buy more.

If food manufacturers were adding heroin to our food, we wouldn’t allow it.  The food industry is cynically and deliberately poisoning us.  It is time we forced it to stop.

Avoiding added sugars when buying staple foods requires extreme vigilance.  Foods here are often misleadingly labelled, with the sugar disguised as maltodextrin, sucrose, fructose, glucose,  corn syrup, maltitol, dehydrated sugar cane, fruit sugars or other equivalents.  And by splitting the added sugar into these different components, the manufacturers can push sugars further down the ingredients list than if the sugars were all bundled together. 

The good news is that sugar consumption here in the US is beginning to dip down, after a peak in 1998.  From the mid-70s to the mid-80s, high fructose corn syrup exploded onto the scene, taking about a third of the cane and beet sugar market, adding to overall sugar consumption, and contributing to the obesity epidemic.  But while the total appears to have peaked, as the graph below shows, Americans still consume more than 5 ounces (150g) of sugar per day: the equivalent of about 4 cans of coke. Apart from soda, most of this is sugar added to ordinary food items by the food processing and catering industries.

Here is an article I wrote a while ago explaining the biochemistry of sugar consumption.  Added sugar will be the new tobacco: it is highly dangerous, addictive and poisonous, and is central to chronic health problems afflicting affluent societies today.


5 thoughts on “Would you like some food with your sugar?”

  1. Clearly food labelling is an important issue, and it’s great that your instinct is for a consumer movement – and the power of the market – rather than a government plea. (I assume that’s what you’re doing)…

    An often neglected example of an entirely self-regulating, voluntary labelling system is Kosher food. When you think of how much detail is required to satisfy their standards, it’s remarkable how powerful we all are.

  2. Anthony

    Yes and no. I am in favour of government regulations to require clear food labelling to allow a consumer movement to function. I would put added sugar in this category.

    Some products are so dangerous that they should be either banned or strictly limited – I would include hydrogenated fats in this group (Denmark has banned them; the US law requires that they be identified on the label from 2006).


  3. Surely it’d be a pretty lazy consumer movement that believes it needs government regulation before it can function?

    If govt. is necessary prior to consumer activism, then what’s the point of civic dialogue?

    Owen replies: All I want (for most products) is government regulation on labelling to enable consumers to choose. There is nothing wrong with that, is there?

  4. Not if you want companies like Unilever to have a competitive advantage over new entrants, that don’t have access to the swathes of lawyers and lobbyists that – by definition – must accompany regulation.

    I want policy that makes it as easy as possible for enterprising individuals to enter a market and increase competition – within the law. The deeper the involvement of government in the requirements of business the more power you give to the big corporations.

    You’ve not convinced me that government is the most preferable route to accurate labelling, because you’re simply assuming that it’s the only route.

    I think you’re committing the Nirvana fallacy.

  5. You’ve not convinced me that government is the most preferable route to accurate labelling, because you’re simply assuming that it’s the only route.

    I think it’s fairly clear that an independent third party is required – purchasers may exert all kinds of pressure on sellers, but they aren’t in a position to exert pressure for accuracy. The question is whether this role can – or should – be played by anyone other than government.

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