BY MELODY CHERNY There are an increasing number of reports on the harmful effects of excess sugar consumption, which has been linked to health problems like obesity, type II diabetes, and heart disease.
The real culprit in excess sugar consumption seems to be that people are consuming “added sugars”: caloric sweeteners like sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup that are added during food processing (as opposed to sugars that occur naturally in fruits and other foods). The daily recommendation for added sugar consumption is a mere six teaspoons for women and nine for men (one teaspoon equals four grams), but estimates suggest the average American consumes nearly 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day. Many people are unaware of just how much sugar they consume because it is hidden in nearly every processed food. The added teaspoon of sugar in ketchup or tablespoon in yogurt can easily go unnoticed.
It’s clear that Americans are consuming too much sugar, but what can be done? Consider the following policy strategies:
- Reduce Sugar Subsidies – The U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided subsidies to the sugar industry for decades. Specifically, the U.S. Sugar Program provides price supports and loans to sugar producers and also limits sugar imports. This means domestic sugar producers can sell their product in the US market at twice the world price, which certainly encourages them to produce more. On the other hand, the US government also subsidizes sugar, making it relatively cheaper for consumers to purchase than non-subsidized commodities (like fruits and vegetables). Easing sugar subsidies through an amended farm bill would likely deter excess sugar consumption by increasing the price of sugar (and sugar-laden products) for consumers.
- Impose Taxes/Restrict Size – Sugary drinks have come under scrutiny as research points to serious health risks. An excise tax on sugary drinks is a promising strategy to deter the consumption of excess sugar and increase government revenue, (a strategy being employed in several European countries although its effectiveness has yet to be concluded). One drawback is that a tax disproportionately affects low-income individuals as they spend a higher portion of their food dollar on sugary drinks. Restricting size is another option. In 2012, former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced a bill that would limit the sale of sugary drinks over 16 ounces; widespread debate and media frenzy ensued. The policy was unanimously approved by the NYC Board of Health before being overturned by the NY Supreme Court and an appeals court. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has stated that he will continue to support the proposal.
- Reform Food Labeling – Another policy strategy is to reform food labeling so labels show added sugars (rather than total sugars) and indicate the percentage of the recommended daily amount for each serving of food. Currently, nutrition labels do not show the amount of sugar one should consume in a day (as they do with fat, sodium, and carbohydrates). This omission makes it unnecessarily difficult for consumers to quickly gauge their daily intake of sugars.
- Regulate Food Marketing – Children and adolescents consume more sugar than adults and are easy targets for marketing as they lack the ability to critique media messages or understand their intent. In fact, billions of dollars are spent each year marketing items like sugary drinks and cereals to children and adolescents. While an all-out ban on marketing sugary foods to youth is improbable, industry self-regulation is an option to control food marketing to youth. For instance, the Walt Disney Corporation recently adopted a plan to stop marketing products with too much sugar by 2015.
- Raise Awareness – A number of awareness campaigns are being used by government and non-profit organizations to educate the public on the consequences of consuming too much sugar. Examples include the NYC Health Department’s Pour on the Pounds and the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s The Real Bears campaigns, which both target sugary drinks. Research suggests that youth, minorities and low-income individuals consume the most sugar, so it’s important that awareness campaigns target these groups.
Americans are eating (and drinking) too much sugar and suffering serious health consequences as a result. To combat this, a number of public policy strategies have been proposed and implemented – some more successfully than others. The majority of these strategies remain controversial despite the mounting evidence that sugar can be harmful to one’s health. It’s high time the interests of public health surpass controversy and inform meaningful policy change.