Imagine that to diagnose this virus, doctors gave you a simple blood test that looked for elevated blood glucose, elevated blood pressure, and high cholesterol. And that, once diagnosed, the virus was completely treatable, as long as you caught it in time. In fact, the American Heart Association, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. government all agreed on the treatment.
Now imagine that doctors were being incentivized not to tell you that this virus exists, and not to recommend the simple cure. And as a result, one in three Americans were already infected, and on his or her way to dying from the disease.
If that seems farfetched, it’s not. In fact, it’s pretty much what’s happening today, with one small difference: It’s not a virus that doctors are keeping quiet about. It’s sugar.
MONEY MAKES MEDICINE GO DOWN
The USDA, the World Health Organization, and the American Heart Association have all come out vociferously against added sugar: the AHA recommends no more than 100 calories per day from added sugars, or 6 teaspoons for women, and 150 calories (9 teaspoons) for men.
And those recommendations make complete sense: New research suggests that for every 5 percent of total calories you consume from added sweeteners, your risk of diabetes increases by 18 percent. That means for the average woman, who consumes about 1,858 calories a day, all you need to eat is 93 calories a day of added sugar to significantly boost your risk. There are 4 calories in a gram of sugar, so that means about 23 grams of added sugar per day will put you directly in the path of an oncoming diabetes train.
And as the editorial team at Eat This, Not That! has consistently pointed out, you don’t have to live on Jolly Ranchers (one of the 33 Worst Halloween Candies) to reach that number. Here are some seemingly healthy foods that put you over your daily limit with just one serving:
Dannon Fruit on the Bottom Cherry Yogurt: 24 grams
Quaker Natural Granola Oats & Honey: 26 grams
PowerBar Performance Energy Vanilla Crisp: 26 grams
Tazo Organic Iced Green Tea: 30 grams
Ocean Spray Cran-Apple: 31 grams
The problem is, even if you’re vigilant, even if you read the labels and make it a rule not to eat anything with more than 10 grams of added sugar, the numbers add up, because sugar is in everything—especially foods it doesn’t belong in, like bread, peanut butter, pasta sauce, salad dressing and oatmeal. In the form of high fructose corn syrup (one of the 8 Ingredients That Need Warning Labels), it even coats the outside of your Advil caplets.
Here’s how easily your numbers can add up: Start your day with Quaker Instant Apple and Cinnamon Oatmeal (9 grams of sugar per serving), have a peanut butter sandwich for lunch with Jif (3 grams) on Pepperidge Farm Whole Wheat Farmhouse Bread (another 3 grams per slice), and then enjoy a dinner of pasta with Ragu Old-World Style Sauce (6 grams of added sugars—it’s the third ingredient after tomato paste and soybean oil). A simple salad with Kraft Zesty Lime Vinaigrette adds another 3 grams. No cookies, no ice cream, no cake, no soda, not even a single bite of chocolate, but you’ve consumed 27 grams of added sugars, or 6.75 teaspoons’ worth—more than what a woman should eat in an entire day.
Doesn’t that piss you off—especially when none of those foods actually requires added sugar? It’s the reason why, on average, we now get 32 teaspoons per day—128 grams of added sugar, or about four times our safety limit! It’s not just because we’re chowing down on too many Little Debbies. It’s because our healthy foods, like salads, oatmeal and peanut butter, are being spiked with the same poison. (For more sugar shockers check out these 10 Sugariest Meals in America.)
Of course, your doctor has already gone over all of this with you, so…
Oh wait, she hasn’t? How can that be? Virulent epidemic + medical consensus + simple remedy ought to lead to an easy, universal cure. But there’s a reason why you haven’t heard about this issue from your doctor. The reason starts exactly 50 years ago…
HOW THE SUGAR INDUSTRY DUG US INTO A HOLE
Open your mouth and take a look back there at your teeth. See any fillings? If so, you may consider cavities a normal part of growing up. But maybe you shouldn’t.
Back in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson wanted, as he put it, a “national attack on disease and disability.” To launch it, he asked all of the directors of the various National Institutes of Health to submit documents showing that they had one or more diseases in their sights.
Now, if you’re the director of the National Cancer Institute or the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, you’ve got plenty of diseases to go after. But what if you’re the director of the National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR)? You’ve pretty much got just one boogie man to chase, and so the NIDR announced a targeted research initiative called the National Caries Program, with the goal of eliminating cavities in children within 10 years.
Imagine that: The U.S. government believed it could eliminate all cavities in children—100 percent clean checkups—by the time Reese Witherspoon was born!
The driving force behind this promise: recent research that found that sucrose—table sugar—caused bacteria to adhere to teeth, causing decay. A combination of fluoridation, research into the bacteria itself, and, most significantly, dietary modifications to reduce sugar consumption would end the plague of cavities within a decade, the NIDR’s director claimed.
As Mad Men’s Don Draper advised, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” And the sugar industry most definitely did not like what was being said. So they began funding research that would divert attention away from the notion that reducing sugar intake was crucial to preventing cavities. The International Sugar Research Foundation (ISRF)—a precursor to today’s Sugar Association—began funding research into cavities, trying to push researchers away from the idea of reducing sugar intake and focusing instead on finding a vaccine against the disease, according to documents summarized in a 2015 report in the journal PLOS Medicine. The ISRF orchestrated a massive outreach to leading scientists, eventually setting up its own task force. By the time the first NIDR Caries Task Force Steering Committee was established in 1969, only one of the 9 committee members wasn’t already affiliated with the ISRF. And by the time the National Caries Program was launched in 1971, the idea of reducing sugar intake was pretty much pooh-poohed; about 40 percent of the NCP’s report was taken verbatim or closely paraphrased from the ISRF.
And that’s why you grew up with cavities.
POISONING THE WELL
Today, the sugar and soda industries are doing very much the same thing with another disease, obesity. Thanks in part to the lobbying of the food industry, sugar consumption rose by 25 percent between 1970 and 2000, in almost exact parallel with the increase in high fructose corn syrup production and obesity, according to a review by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The organization identified five separate tactics used by the food industry to help keep the sugar flowing: attacking the science linking sugar and obesity; hiring scientists to work on behalf of the industry; influencing academia through funding; undermining federal, state and local policy through lobbying and PR campaigns; and spreading misinformation to the public.
For a solid example of that last point, you can check out the website for the Global Energy Balance Network, which seeks to “be the voice of science in ending obesity.” Its premise is eating more calories—of any kind—and exercising more is the best way to maintain a healthy weight. In other words, if you’re fat, it’s because you don’t exercise enough, not because of the quality or quantity of the food you’re eating. Which is a good message to get out there if you’re a company that sells high-calorie, nutrition-free foods and beverages.
So it won’t surprise you to learn that the Global Energy Balance Network is owned by Coca-Cola—although you won’t see that fact listed anywhere on the site.
In fact, since the USDA, the AHA, and the WHO all issued their warnings against sugar in 2014, many scientists have begun to worry that the sugar industry and its supporters, like soda and candy manufacturers, seem poised to pull another scientific-looking rabbit out of their hats, like they did back in 1966.
Their worries seem well-founded. Coca-Cola was recently unmasked as the number one sponsor of the Academy of Pediatrics’ HealthyChildren.org website, and it has given nearly $3 million to the academy over the past six years, according to the New York Times. Other beneficiaries of the company’s largesse: The American College of Cardiology ($3.1 million), the American Academy of Family Physicians ($3.5 million), the American Cancer Society ($2 million) and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics ($1.7 million). And recent studies finding that a lack of energy expenditure in adolescents contributed greatly to the obesity crises turn out to have been funded by Coke.
In a 2013 review of literature in PLOS Medicine, the authors looked at 18 scientific conclusions drawn from systematic reviews of studies on the link between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and weight gain or obesity. Among reviews conducted by scientists without any reported conflict of interest, 10 out of 12 found that sodas and other sugary beverages could be a risk factor from weight gain. But among studies that were funded by the food industry, 5 out of 6 found exactly the opposite. What a coincidence!
In explaining the company’s position, Sandy Douglas, the president of Coca-Cola North America, told the New York Times, “I suspect that completely eliminating [sodas] is not necessary for kids to be healthy any more than eliminating ice cream, birthday cake or cookies.”
But the fact is, eliminating that one single can of Coke is necessary. It contains 39 grams of added sugar; sugar makes up 100 percent of its 140 calories. A 2009 study at UCLA found that adults who drank one sugary beverage per day were 27 percent more likely to be classified as overweight than those who drank less. Just one daily Coke means you’re consuming an additional 39 pounds of sugar a year. In fact, scientists writing in the journal Circulation in 2015 estimated that eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages could save 184,000 lives a year—133,000 from diabetes, 45,000 from heart disease and 6,450 from cancer.
But while it may take quite a bit of tap dancing for the junk food industry to convince us that sugar doesn’t make us fat or sick (or, for that matter, give us cavities), it’s easy for the business interests to keep us just a little bit confused.
For example, consider food labels. As you’ve probably sussed out by now, ingredients are listed on the labels in a particular order, according to how much of the product is made up of those individual ingredients. That’s why food companies, fully aware that we know what they’re up to, have started to list individual compounds under less scary sounding names. For example, when you see that the first four ingredients listed on the label of a PowerBar Vanilla Crisp Performance Bar are cane invert syrup, maltodextrin, fructose, and dextrose, what you might not quite grasp is that all four are forms of sugar. (Also listed later on in the ingredients list: sugar.)
That’s why nutrition labels are tricky. Manufacturers would prefer to add five different types of sugar, and list them individually, than to use just a single source of sweetness and have it be ingredient number one on their label. So you’ll often see things like molasses, coconut nectar, corn syrup, barley malt and more listed, when they all add up to the same thing: a sugar rush. Even more confusing, some foods like yogurts have a certain amount of naturally occurring sugars, which are found in all dairy products, and then added sugars, which are added by manufacturers to turn our taste buds into 7-year-olds again. And remember, it’s the added sugars, specifically, that health organizations want you to be concerned about.
To help you understand what you’re eating better, in the Food and Drug Administration proposed a simple change: Make the calorie count on the label larger, and add a new line under total sugars that told you how much of the sugar you were eating was “added sugar.”
The reaction of the sugar industry? They started buzzing like a toddler who just pounded a Mountain Dew Big Gulp.
In fact, the proposal drew criticisms from the expected sources—the Sugar Association, the American Bakers Association, the Corn Refiners Association, and Nestle—but also from places you wouldn’t expect. For example, cranberry farmers are up in arms because manufacturers add sugar to most cranberry-based products to make them less bitter. While the proposal remains up for consideration, and the FDA can’t comment on when or whether it might take effect, the forces of the sugar industry continue to battle against it. In a 2015 letter to the USDA, Sugar Association president Andrew C. Briscoe III argued that “There is not a preponderance of scientific evidence [linking] ‘added sugars’ intake to serious disease or negative health outcomes.”
Including, his letter said, cavities.