by Olivia Olson
This nation’s obesity epidemic has become a topic of casual conversation. Whether brought up with a sigh or a dismissive hand wave over dinner, even those less affected are at least facially aware of the problem plaguing millions of Americans. While many components―stress, preexisting health conditions, lifestyle―factor into this complex issue, few understand sugar’s central role in this epidemic and the underlying corporate and governmental factors.
It is no longer enough to acknowledge that the problem exists. When 93.3 million US adults and 13.7 million children are considered obese, when heart disease has solidified its position as the US’s number one cause of death, when adult-onset diabetes is no longer adult-onset, we must hone in on the roots of the problem and address the issue.
While consumers frequently vilify fat, salt, or red meat, most fail to acknowledge sugar’s role in obesity and overweight. In the past 60 years of increased health consciousness, sugar has managed to largely avoid blame, and indeed increase its presence in a wide variety of ‘fat free,’ ‘gluten free,’ or ‘all natural’ ‘health foods.’
Sugar’s perceived innocence is neither an accident nor a consumeristic oversight. In 1967, the Sugar Research Foundation (now the Sugar Association) paid Harvard scientists to publish a “review of research on sugar, fat and heart disease.” The studies underrepresented the link between sugar and heart disease, instead casting the blame on fat. This action led to decades of consumers and corporations vilifying fat. Accordingly, companies began prominently displaying their product’s minimized fat content, and avoiding added fat became the hallmark of healthy eating in the US.
While minimizing fat may seem like a positive change despite the egregious method by which it became popular, one must not forget what happens when you take the fat out of something. It tastes terrible. But that’s nothing a little (or a lot) of sugar can’t fix. Thus, while processed food labels tout that they are “fat free,” “reduced fat,” or “0 trans fat,” they forget to mention that they are chock full of sugar. For example, Cap’n Crunch boasts its single gram of saturated fat while hiding a whopping 12 grams of sugar in small print; similarly deceptive tactics are also evident on supposedly healthy foods, such as salad dressings and deli meats.
Despite the sugar industry’s ongoing prevalence in American diets and successful attempts to shift blame, many have begun to acknowledge sugar’s deleterious health effects. For example, experts consider soda the single most “directly responsible” product for this nation’s obesity epidemic, increasing the risk of obesity 1.6 times for each additional soda consumed.
While a convenience store Sprite on a long drive home or a fountain soda with your Subway sandwich may seem innocent, the process of supersizing sodas increased consumption and contributed to a huge obesity uptick. Large portions encourage consumption of 30 percent more than consumers would otherwise―and governmental corn subsidies render soda (through high fructose corn syrup) sufficiently cheap for companies to charge mere additional pennies for a substantially larger amount of soda.
The industry’s immense pecuniary power has additionally allowed it to quash efforts to address soda’s role in the obesity epidemic. In 2009, when Congress was working on a soda tax, “PepsiCo Inc, Coca-Cola Co, bottlers and the American Beverage Association spent more than $40 million lobbying.” The previous year they’d spent a meager $4.8 million and promptly cut expenditure after the tax proposal died.
Similarly, in 2016, Coca-Cola funded millions of dollars worth of research to “play down the link between sugary drinks and obesity.” These companies maintain their grip on the American public through lobbying efforts in the government and continue to perpetuate this nation’s obesity epidemic.
Up until this point, the sugar industry has successfully paid their way out of the public eye and remains sufficiently powerful to influence governmental policy. While these corporations dole out millions to remain the “Breakfast of Champions” or “A Taste Like No Other,” it is really America’s health that pays. Although mere consumeristic responsibility is no match for governmental reform and transparent food policy, the next time you crack open a soda, think about whether you’re “opening happiness,” or a dangerous can of worms.