Sugar’s Bad Year

March 8, 2016 § 4 Comments

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s been a lot happening in the world of food policy, and because I am a tremendous Food Nerd, I am here to breathlessly point out this quiet but seismic shift. To sum up, if there is a Sugar Anti-Defamation League out there (and I assure you there is) they are having a very, very bad year.

It all began last April, when the World Health Organization recommended that we- everyone- should restrict to between 10 and 5 percent of total daily calories our intake of “free sugars” (translation: added sugars, as opposed to say, the sugar in a piece of whole fruit). http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/sugar-guideline/en/ This was huge news in the sugar world, not only because it made headlines, and not so much because anyone thinks it will radically shift the way any one person actually chooses their food, but more importantly because of the impact this can have on food policy around the world. What this means, at heart, is that what we consider acceptable food on a global scale is truly, if ever-so-glacially, changing.

In January, the US government followed suit, releasing new federal dietary guidelines telling Americans, officially, and for the first time ever, that they should be limiting their sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of daily calories. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/ http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/07/new-diet-guidelines-urge-less-sugar-for-all-and-less-meat-for-boys-and-men/?_r=0 Again, this is the kind of thing that will find its biggest ramifications in eventual changes to things like school lunch policy and food stamps.

You can recommend till you’re blue in the face, but what then? Some would add a stick to go with the carrot, which is where soda taxes come in. And there’s good news on that front as well because a study has found that soda taxes work: specifically in Mexico where their recently implemented tax has resulted in the decline of soda purchases anywhere between 6 and 17 percent. http://press.psprings.co.uk/bmj/january/sugartax.pdf

This is excellent news, because the idea of helping solve the obesity crisis via strategic taxation is all the rage, especially in Europe. Did you know Finland, Hungary and France already have their own versions of a sugar-sweetened beverage tax? No? https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/news/fat-taxes-do-work-eu-report-finds/ Who’s next? Maybe England. Aided by the lobbying efforts and a public awareness campaign by food celebrity Jamie Oliver, Britain’s parliament is considering a tax on sugary beverages, as well as other measures to reduce childhood obesity. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/oct/22/jamie-oliver-expects-kicking-sugar-tax-sweetened-drinks

These are all good signs, right? To some degree.

Not to be a downer, but I’d have to be in pretty big denial not to notice that there’s still a pretty big sugar-shit-storm raging out there, with no signs of abating any time soon. I’ll give you a for-instance: a few weeks ago I found myself in a hospital cafeteria, surrounded by people who were overwhelmingly choosing to have soda for breakfast. Not high school or college students, mind you, but full-time adults who fold their own socks and everything. It was like a horror movie especially for Pilates instructors and people who work at Whole Foods. All by itself, this observation would’ve been bad enough, but to make matters infinitely worse, do you know who most of these people clearly were? As indicated by their ID badges, scrubs and white coats they were doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

Health professionals. Having soda. For breakfast.

And just yesterday I was sitting in a local cafe at breakfast time, idly watching patrons wander by with trays full of what should’ve been food, but really was sugar in various guises and forms. There was the tall, thin, twenty-something guy who had a 15 ounce Smoothie with which to wash down his enormous slices of chocolate cake and Tiramisu. (I kept silently looking over, hoping a friend was going to at least join him to eat the second dessert, but no such luck.) There was the well-meaning Dad who arrived at a table full of youngsters with a tray containing cupcakes, pastries, and a stack of thick, dinner-plate-sized cookies. Did I mention that this was at 9:30 in the morning?

Really, it would’ve been worth someone’s time to videotape the open-mouthed look of stupefaction on my face. I couldn’t have looked more aghast if these plastic trays had carried the results of someone’s frog dissection from biology class. At any rate, perhaps that would’ve been a healthier breakfast.

I don’t want to tell everyone how to eat, honestly I don’t. I just can’t believe that, if they knew about sugar what I know about sugar, that most people would be making these choices. Sure, we can enjoy a cupcake occasionally, but when it becomes the focal point of breakfast? That’s when we start to get in seriously big trouble.

But let’s go back to the good news, which is actually bigger than all the latest taxes, recommendations, celebrity awareness, and double-blind studies put together: the really good news is that people are talking about this. The sugar conversation is being had. For the first time, companies are adding words like “No Sugar Added” to their labels, because suddenly there is a cultural recognition on some level of why that might be a really good thing.

No longer is sugar the innocuous, cheap, filler ingredient that makes everything better with no consequences. And, if I had to guess, that’s what really keeping the Sugar Anti-Defamation League up at night.

That’s okay. They can always have a nice soda for breakfast.

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