September 15, 2016

MCEVOY MINUTE | How the Sugar Industry Won (and How We Lost)

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Photo Courtesy of New Health Advisor

Earlier this week, an article was published in JAMA Internal Medicine providing evidence that in the 1960s the sugar industry supplied funding for scientific research that identified fat and cholesterol as the main culprits of coronary heart disease, and downplayed the evidence that sugar consumption can also be linked to CHD. It is likely that this literature, sponsored by the Sugar Research Foundation and originally published in the New England Journal of Medicine, contributed to the rise of low-fat diet in the mid to late 1900s. Today, the American public consumes 25% more carbohydrates than we did in the 1970s, as we have turned away from fatty foods like nuts, meat, and cheese, and began to consume more grains, potatoes, and ‘low-fat’ versions of food. These ‘low-fat’ foods, marketed as the healthier option, are actually packed with salt and sugar to make them taste as good as the original option containing fat. The American Heart Association and the U.S. government, based on misleading information and studies that could not be replicated, perpetuated the idea that a low-fat diet would help reduce weight and risk of heart failure. Forty years later, with incidents like the one published in JAMA coming to light, it is clear that the low-fat diet fixation not only failed in curbing obesity and health issues, but that it also facilitated the increased inclusion of sugar and salt into our everyday foods.

In recent years, we have seen a new kind of health movement, different than the low-fat diet craze of the late 1900s. People are demanding organic and GMO-free food, and meat that comes from humanely treated animals. Yet, most people continue to be unaware of the amount of sugar contained in the average American diet and mistakenly equate low calorie options to low sugar options. In 2012, the average American adult consumed 22 teaspoons of sugar a day – or about 88 grams of granulated white sugar. According to the American Heart Association, men should have no more than 9 teaspoons and women should have no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar each day. While it is obvious that cookies and cake should be consumed in moderation, a large amount of the sugar in our diets comes from sources that are perceived to be healthy. For example, in one cup of Chobani’s blueberry Greek yogurt, there is 15 grams, or almost 4 teaspoons, of sugar. Most people, meanwhile, would likely say that Greek yogurt is a healthy breakfast option – certainly healthier than a bowl of Lucky Charms (which, by the way, has 19 grams of sugar per cup). This is not to say that one should never eat Chobani yogurt; I merely intend to show that food companies add unexpectedly large quantities of sugar to food products that are marketed as healthy choices.

As students, we are extremely susceptible to overconsumption of sugar because we often shop for food on a tight budget. While attempting to  maximize our funds, many students turn to cheap meals like macaroni & cheese or a package of hotdogs. Both of these can be bought for under $2, while a small bag of apples can cost over $5. Processed food is, in almost all cases, cheaper than fresh or organic alternatives. It also tends to contain more sugar than non-processed, whole foods. In fact, a study published earlier this year by scientists at the University of Sao Paolo found that, on average, 90% of the added sugar consumed by participants came from processed foods. They found that, on average, processed foods contained eight times more sugar than cheese and five times more sugar than meat – both foods that are typically considered ‘high fat’ and blamed for causing CHD for decades in the late 1900s. Tellingly, a look at the food offered in Cornell’s on-campus convenience stores and markets show that they overwhelmingly offer processed, packaged foods with only a small selection of fresh, whole food products.

The findings published by JAMA this week help explain how sugar has become a staple in the American diet (highlighted by the fact that the average American consumed 30% more sugar in 2010 than in 1977). It also questions what research the public ought to trust for nutritional information. Even today, with stricter regulation of academic and scientific research methods, corporations can still sponsor studies and government-issued guidelines may always be susceptible to the influence of interest groups. Because of this, we must be proactive in ensuring our own nutrition and health and actually take the time to read nutrition facts. Students especially ought to be wary of the products marketed at our age group as healthy, low-fat options, since many cheap, processed foods likely contain a large amount of sugar and other additives. While scientists may continue to grapple with identifying whether sugar or fat is ‘worse’ for us, it is clear that both should be consumed in moderation. Research that says otherwise, like the study that was identified in JAMA, has likely been manipulated by relevant interest groups or stakeholders.