Feature

The villainization of sugar

How sugar became America's public enemy No. 1

America has a new number one dietary enemy, a stealthy ingredient that wears many disguises. It wreaks long-term havoc in the form of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease and is a significant contributor to rising obesity rates. And the government has declared it a public health threat.

We're looking at you, sugar.

Although the sweet stuff has been falling from grace for a while, it seems this year, sugar's transformation into a dietary villain is nearly complete. It is the country's most avoided ingredient, with 65 percent of Americans now trying to cut or eliminate sugar from their diets. The federal government has taken several clear steps to highlight its dangers, and food manufacturers are remaking their products to address consumers' concerns. In particular, added sugars — those that are introduced in the course of processing or preparing food (as opposed to those that occur naturally like the lactose in milk or sucrose in fruit) — are in the crosshairs.

In retrospect, this shift isn't surprising, and not just because we follow cycles of demonization and deliverance when it comes to food choices. Overreliance on any one ingredient can lead to negative health repercussions, and Americans collectively (if unknowingly) went all in on sugar in the 1980s and '90s. Back then, we were obsessed with cutting fat — but when recipes lose fat, they lose flavor, so we compensated by adding more sugar.

Even for those who were paying attention, this added sugar was hard to spot. It's the Jason Bourne of foods, sneaking around under more than 50 aliases. The names range from the exotic (agave nectar, muscovado) to the chemical (ethyl maltol, maltodextrin) to the plebeian (fruit juice, maple syrup). And these added sugars hide in lots of common foods, from salad dressings to grains and dairy. The largest percentage — 47 percent — lurks in beverages like sodas, fruit drinks, and sport and energy drinks. Thirty-one percent can be found in snacks and sweets.

All of this makes for a nation that's high on sugar. Between 2009 and 2010, American adults were taking in 30 percent more added sugar daily than they did in 1977, according to the Obesity Society. Today, the average American consumes 22.2 teaspoons, or roughly 90 grams, of added sugar every day.

That number contrasts sharply with the latest federal dietary guidelines. The recommendations state that no more than 10 percent of a person's daily calories should come from added sugars. So for a person taking in the recommended 2,000 calories per day, that comes to somewhere between 40 and 48 grams — or between 10 and 12 teaspoons — of sugar. (For reference, one 12-ounce can of regular Coke includes 39 grams of sugar.)

In May, the Food and Drug Administration finalized its redesign of the Nutrition Facts label that adorns most food packaging. More than 77 percent of Americans have said they use the label when shopping, and its makeover highlights sugar in two key ways. Rather than dedicate a single line to the amount of sugar in a product, the new panel has two lines — one for total sugars and one for added sugars. It also gives a daily percent value for added sugar, to highlight the portion it represents of recommended daily intake.

Experts predict the new labeling will prompt food manufacturers to reformulate their products. And even before the new label, industry giants like General Mills and Nestle were becoming more sugar-sensitive in response to changing attitudes. Last year, for example, Nestle lowered the added sugar in its Nesquik powder by 15 percent in its chocolate version, and 27 percent in its strawberry version. But reducing sugar is not as simple as it sounds, says The Washington Post: "It actually requires a time-consuming and complex science. Your morning cereal, for example, could turn to dust in your bowl if the mix of ingredients isn't just right. Or if you want to increase the amount of whole grains in a product, you may have to add more sugar to offset the bitterness of the new taste."

Slow though they may be, more and more manufacturers are falling in step. Kind, which makes a popular line of fruit and nut bars, has started posting the added sugar content of its more than 60 products on its website, and will include the information on its bars early next year. It also plans to remove up to 56 percent of added sugars from some of its products.

Restaurants are also changing their ways, though consumers should be wary of what's marketing, and what's meaningful change. For example, the national pizza chain Papa John's eliminated high-fructose corn syrup as an ingredient on its menu, a change that affects about 10 offerings, including dipping sauces and some desserts. But the corn syrup has been replaced by sugar, which means the net effect in the body is basically the same. Similarly, McDonald's replaced the high-fructose corn syrup in its hamburger buns with sucrose, "a sweetener that customers feel good about," Marion Gross, McDonald's supply chain senior vice president, told Business Insider. Sure, consumers might feel better, but it's still sugar.

Some lawmakers have moved beyond public education in their efforts to curb sugar consumption, instead levying taxes on soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Berkeley, California, became the first city to institute such a tax, in the fall of 2014, and in the first year after it took effect the consumption of sugary drinks dropped by 20 percent. This past June, Philadelphia passed a similar ordinance. (On the international front, Mexico added a 10 percent tax on sugary drinks in 2013, which led to a 6 percent reduction in sales, and England will be instituting a two-tier sugar tax on soft drinks starting in 2018.)

Whether taxes like these will gain widespread momentum in the U.S. remains to be seen. In the meantime, get ready to add more math to your diet. And remember that sugar, by any other name, is indeed just as sweet.

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