Corporate interests too often collide with public health. Think Big Tobacco (cigarettes and all sorts of diseases), Big Pharma (drug makers and opioid painkillers), Big Auto (car defects and fatal wrecks), and even the NFL (football and brain injuries).
Is it time that we add Big Sugar and its fizzy cousin Big Soda to this list of shame?
The question arises because conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer remain stubborn killers despite decades of health awareness and wellness efforts. Why aren’t we bending the curve of survival in a better direction?
One not-so-sweet answer is emerging: Big Sugar and Big Soda may be pursuing their interests with such zeal that they’re undermining the public’s health, with both covert spending and big dollops of visible dollars to get consumers to guzzle record amounts of their unhealthy products. It may be time to just say no, not only for our own health but especially for our kids’ sake.
Evidence grows of sugar’s health harms
It’s commonly seen as a refined white powder, which addicts zealously seek out and ingest no matter its harms. Ask most Americans and they might suspect this describes cocaine or heroin. But for tens of millions in the United States who never get anywhere near a dangerous narcotic, processed and refined sugar may be the substance of greater detriment.
Sodas? They add up to as much of a fifth of the refined sugar Americans take in. Boys take in more calories from sugar than girls do, with children and teens consuming 16 percent of their total caloric intake from added sugar. Black men and women consume more calories from added sugars than do whites, and the poor take in more than the wealthier. For American adults on average, 13 percent of their caloric intake comes from added sugar.
Calling it “the fight of our lives,” the Harvard School of Public Healthhas pledged to help persuade Americans to slash consumption of salt and sugar, with experts at the respected institution noting that their “prime target is sugar in sodas, fruit juices, and other cloying drinks … [because] downing just one 12-ounce can of a typical sweetened beverage daily can add 15 pounds [of sugar to the diet] in a year. In children, one sweetened beverage a day fuels a 60 percent increase in the risk of obesity—and American teenaged boys drink almost three times that much.” The Harvard experts say that one of their studies linked sugary drinks to increased risk of heart disease in adults, not just because of the reduction the substance can cause in “good” HDL cholesterol nor just due to weight gain from increased calorie intake. They said sugar itself posed risks. Another Harvard study in 2004, the experts added, found that women who had one or more servings a day of a sugar-sweetened soft drink or fruit punch were “nearly twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes as those who rarely imbibed these beverages.”
Big Sugar and Big Soda, similarly, have had their dubious practices exposed in research and news reports that raise serious concerns about big corporate money corrupting critical information about public health.
Experts, for example, were floored this fall when the peer-reviewed, prominent Journal of the American Medical Association published historical research that found Big Sugar had funded and meddled with important studies in the 1960s, downplaying sugar’s health harms and instead pointing at fats as culprits in obesity and heart disease. By today’s standards, it would be utterly unacceptable for leading nutritional experts at Harvard (now dead) to have taken the tens of thousands of dollars, as they did from representatives of a sugar industry group, and to allow them to review and make suggestions on draft reports. Experts say this unsavory conduct by Big Sugar swayed critical thinking in negative ways about nutrition and heart disease for a half century. It “derailed” vital discussions about the role of sugar, in its various forms, in many serious health conditions.
Soda taxes exist in Mexico, Berkeley, Calif., and Philadelphia. Proponents hope to add them in San Francisco, and the nearby California cities of Oakland and Albany, as well as in Boulder, Colo. Momentum, advocates say, is building to fight back against Big Soda by imposing new taxes on sugary soft drinks. Voters will decide the issue on Election Day.
Experts estimate that since Berkeley successfully imposed soda taxes, the industry, including the American Beverage Association, has spent as much as $37.7 million a year to battle similar ballot measures with campaigns and lobbying. But those allocations, in turn, provoked wealthy philanthropists, including Michael Bloomberg, the media mogul and former New York City mayor, and onetime hedge funder John Arnold and his wife, Laura—who all have targeted sugary soft drinks as public health menaces—to significantly increase their donations to almost $12 million to support soda taxes.
When it comes to people, refinement matters. That also applies to sugars, some researchers say. There are different kinds, depending on their source. There’s some debate whether some types are better or worse for us than others.
Substances that end in -ose are sugars: sucrose, fructose, maltose, and dextrose are all sugars. They may be derived from cane, beets, fruits, and grains. Lactose, another sugar, occurs in milk and dairy prodcuts.
In recent years fads have come and gone about the alleged “benefits” of switching to sugars from coconuts or agave or what have you. The bottom line’s the same: Sugars from whatever source add calories that can contribute to weight issues that create myriad health woes. Americans consume way too much sugar. And, as with any substance, excess isn’t good.
For soda addicts, especially, there’s not consensus good news about advantages in guzzling “diet” drinks instead of regular varieties. It doesn’t appear to help cut calorie intake and weight loss. Why? People consume too many diet sodas, thinking the beverages are calorie free. They aren’t, and drinkers shouldn’t feel entitled to splurge, including with other treats because they “saved” calories. Those diet sodas also may be bad, because they adversely affect the gut biome, and they may contribute to metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.