How the sugar lobby helps perpetuate that sweet tooth of yours


So many sweet deals. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

Peak sugar intake might be behind us, but that doesn't mean America has shed its sweet tooth.

The average American still consumes a lot more sugar than she should be, according to a new report (pdf) by the Union of Concerned Scientists, even though it's known to cause weight gain and diabetes, and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. "Despite these adverse health effects of sugar, most Americans consume much more added sugar than is recommended for a healthy diet," the report says.

How much more? Well, that depends on whom you ask. But according to the most recent Health and Human Services recommendation, the answer is that Americans are consuming more than twice as much as they should be. Have a look:

Sugar intake has been falling since 2000, largely thanks to America's growing disinterest in soft drinks. But it would be falling a lot faster if it weren't for the sugar lobby, according to the report.

Indeed, there are curious instances in which lobbying expenditures have spiked in recent years. In 2009, ahead of a possible federal excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (otherwise known as sugary sodas), the American Beverage Association, Coca-Cola Company, and PepsiCo—all of which have a vested interest in the health of the soda industry—spent a combined $37 million on lobbying efforts.

The policy proposal, for the record, didn't pass into law. But lobbying efforts like it are merely one of many ways in which companies with an interest in sugar promote the industry's health—political campaign contributions and tactful alliances have proven equally as effective. And the sugar industry isn't exactly starved for cash to swing around.

"When you take on Big Sugar, you take on a huge political money operation," Rep. Mark Steven Kirk from Illinois said back in 2007. It's just as true today. The industry has doled out nearly $4 million in contributions this year. The political givers range from farmers to candy-makers, and influence everything from sugar farm subsidies to public school lunch program policies.

But profits for the sugar industry do little for our collective well-being. In fact, they're likely inversely correlated. Between 1998 and 2006, Americans spent more than thirty times the recommended amount on sugar and candies. Between 2005 and 2010, added sugar was responsible for roughly 13 percent of the average American's diet, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That's clearly not going to cut it. Recent studies have tied added sugars to a number of health related risks, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity—the three of which are more prevalent today than ever before.

Roberto A. Ferdman is a reporter for Wonkblog covering food, economics, immigration and other things. He was previously a staff writer at Quartz.



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