Sugar cravings

Posted by on Feb 4, 2012 | 0 comments

Global sugar glut

On Thursday, the journal Nature published a brief comment about sugar by three faculty from UC San Francisco, who argue that sugar should be regulated by governments worldwide and severely limited in the foods we eat.

They’re not crazy. There’s increasing evidence linking sugar consumption to diseases that we always thought were related to fat consumption–diabetes, hypertension, lipid problems, cardiovascular disease, and fatty liver disease, all components of what we now call “metabolic syndrome.” We’ve recently begun to understand that sugar may be even more harmful than saturated fat. (On a side note, isn’t it a little disturbing that the processed foods we eat are so rich in sugar and fats that for decades we couldn’t tell which one of those things was killing us?) Half of table sugar is fructose, which is a naturally occurring sugar that we metabolize in the liver, unlike other sugars. Most high fructose corn syrup, the main sweetener in just about any packaged foods in the U.S., is 55% fructose. A little fructose–like what we get naturally in fruit–is not a problem for our bodies, but a lot will overwhelm our liver and eventually, slowly, kill us. Treatment of sugar-related disease is one reason that American health care system costs have risen by about 50% every five years in the past two decades. It’s become fashionable to hate corn syrup, but even table sugar is half fructose, whether it’s made from sugar beets or sugar cane. And if the fructose is the real troublemaker, than it’s just best to avoid all added sugar.

The authors of the article suggest several regulatory mechanisms to fight sugar consumption, all of which governments have used to limit alcohol consumption: taxes, distribution control, age limits, bans from schools, licensing, and labeling. I would argue that governments regulate alcohol because of risks associated with intoxication, including drunk driving and abuse by children, and not because, as the authors say, alcohol has bad long-term health effects. They also suggest removing fructose from the “Generally Regarded as Safe” status, which allows producers to add as much as they like to packaged foods. This list includes common additives like vitamins and minerals, spices, preservatives or emulsifiers, and natural and artificial flavors and colors. It also includes caffeine, hydrated sodium calcium aluminosilicate, wheat gluten, and just about everything else we regularly put in our mouths. Adding a “safe” limit for added sugars isn’t the worst idea, but it would be downright strange not to allow fructose on the list at all.

I have a different proposal–a traditionally conservative, free-market approach. Although all sugar is really the problem, corn syrup is a relatively easy way to attack it, and almost half of the sugar we eat is in the form of corn syrup–about 38 pounds per person in 2008, as compared to 47 pounds of table sugar. (Add that up if you really feel like making yourself sick to your stomach.) American scientists developed corn syrup as an alternative to table sugar back when sugar prices were sky-high in the late 1970s, and manufacturers wanted something cheap to sweeten their products. The sudden abundance of super-cheap sweeteners meant that suddenly everyone could afford to dump as much sugar as they wanted into products–a smart move, as sweet flavors trigger the appetite, making us crave more. Suddenly Coke and Pepsi had 30% more sugar in them than before, and people got used to that, drinking more than ever before. Corn syrup made its way into everything from ice creams to whole wheat bread, and since it doesn’t solidify, it also kept their texture feeling fresher, longer. We’ve become dependent on corn syrup. And industry has become dependent on the $3-10 billion in corn subsidies we pay out every year.

The money we save could support small farms or go toward paying some of the health care costs of metabolic syndrome.

What would happen if we got rid of the subsidies? I don’t want to get too deeply into subsidies here, but in brief, the top 20% of subsidy recipients–who receive 88% of the payments–would be hit pretty hard. Luckily, we could realistically afford to spend some of the billions we save to help the country’s largest farms (which have immense lobbying power in Congress) transition to healthier crops. (Did you know, Indiana used to be one of the country’s largest producers of tomatoes? It’s not impossible, folks.) The rest of the money we save could support small farms producing non-commodity crops or even go toward paying some of the health care costs of metabolic syndrome. When the glut of corn syrup on the market disappears, corn syrup prices will go up. Sweetened soda will no longer be cheaper than bottled water. The amount of fructose in our diet will drop. You’ll start seeing a lot more real-sugar products, and a lot more products with “now with no added sugar!” on the label. Will it solve all our problems? Nope. Will it go a long way toward fixing a serious structural problem in our farm system? Definitely.

Just think of it. Maybe bread will start tasting more like wheat again, and bran muffins will actually become healthy. And ice cream? Well, even if it costs a little more, I’ll still be making that at home.

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