America’s Secret Sugar Problem

I first began to pay attention to sugar consumption a few years ago, after flipping over a CLIF bar on a whim to read the label advertising its nutritional content. The bar contained 22 grams of sugar, which after some Googling on my own part was revealed to be more than 80% of my recommended daily intake. CLIF bars are marketed as meal replacements for hikers and athletes, but I knew plenty of people who ate them as snacks. I thought of them as a “health food”.

Over the last several years, evidence has been mounting that too much sugar consumption leads to an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It also contributes to tooth decay, obesity, and a whole array of other maladies. The American Heart Association currently recommends that adult women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day, and that adult men consume no more than 37.5 grams. This is in line with the recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the 2016 US Dietary Guidelines, which advise that no more than 10 percent of our daily calories (and ideally less than five percent) come from sugar. Despite these warnings, however, studies continue to show the average American consumes as much as 82 grams of sugar every day.

After the CLIF bar incident I started thinking, where else is sugar where I don’t expect it? How easy is it to exceed the daily recommended intake without even realizing it? I started looking for sugar on Nutrition Facts labels, and the results were shocking. Sugar was in all the places I expected it to be—desserts, breakfast cereals, soft drinks—but it was astounding how much sugar I found in unexpected places. Foods I would categorize as “healthy” or “savory” before calling them sweet, items like pasta sauce and whole wheat bagels, all contained added sugar. Even my favorite brand of yogurt, long touted as a health item, contained a whopping 33 grams of sugar per one cup serving.

By adding sugar to foods we don’t expect to be sweet, the food industry plays an active role in engineering sugar cravings. They control both the demand and the supply of sweet, sugar-laced food and beverages.

The soft drink industry is perhaps the most culpable—products like bread and yogurt, even if they’re fortified with sugar, still contain other nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fiber. And fruits, although high in sugar, are still an important part of a balanced diet. They are less harmful than other sweet foods (though they should still be consumed in moderation) because their sugars occur naturally. Soft drinks, on the other hand, have sugar that is added in during processing and contain almost no nutrients.

The first step in finding a solution to America’s sugar problem is simply having a heightened awareness of sugar consumption and its prevalence in our diets. Reading nutrition labels helps, but there are also a few public initiatives on the horizon which show that concern and awareness about sugar consumption is growing on a national level as well. For example, in May the FDA finalized a new Nutrition Facts label design for packaged foods. In addition to updating serving sizes and making information about calories and servings per container more prominent, the new label will go into more detail about sugar content. It will differentiate between “added sugar” and the sugar which occurs naturally in the ingredients, and it will give sugars a percent Daily Value. So for a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola, which contains 65 grams of sugar, the nutrition label will now have to list that the added sugar represents 130 percent of the recommended daily intake.

The other initiative pointing towards a change in how America thinks about sugar comes from Philadelphia. On June 16, Philadelphia became the first major U.S. city to institute a tax on sugary beverages. The 1.5 cents-per-ounce surcharge is expected to act as a deterrent for consumers and may set a precedent for other cities to implement similar measures (New York and San Francisco have both tried to pass soda taxes in the past).

As research confirming the detrimental effects of sugar on long-term health continues, I expect more measures like these will be put in place to police its role in what we eat. It will become more difficult for the food industry to hide added sugar where it doesn’t belong. As we move forward into the future, I hope we can come together as a nation and commit to a healthier, more transparent standard for how we produce and market our food.

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