Texas state legislators are taking fresh aim at energy drinks, soda and candy. State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R), who represents Baytown in the Houston area, filed a bill in March in House Committee for Human Services that would ban people from using food stamps to pay for energy drinks, candy and other junk foods.
The Texas bill aims to curb the spread of diabetes and other health complications linked to poor diet.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, provides nutrition assistance to around 40 million Americans, in a program costing taxpayers about $70 billion annually. According to a 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, sugary drinks account for about 10 percent of SNAP food dollars spent.
A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that stores market sugary drinks more heavily on days when SNAP benefits are issued, which might in part explain the $7 billion bill for beneficiaries’ sweet tooth.
The Texas bill is not the first time legislators have attempted to limit government subsidies of sugary drinks. In 2012, then-Florida state Sen. Ronda Storms (R) sponsored a bill to restrict the purchase of soda and junk food with SNAP dollars. It did not pass.
In 2011, the USDA denied a request by then-New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to bar the use of food stamp dollars to purchase sodas.
Critics of these efforts object to the government infringing on the freedoms of low-income Americans. In truth, non-SNAP households spend nearly as much money on sugary drinks, accounting for 7 percent of food purchases according to a USDA report.
“Before 2015, there were no guideline for added sugar. We set a threshold,” Mary Story, a scholar in the field of child and adolescent nutrition at Duke’s Global Health Institute and a member of the USDA’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, said in a recent interview.
The guidelines, currently being revised for 2020, recommend limiting calories from added sugars to no more than 10 percent of daily intake. That’s 200 calories, about 12 teaspoons or 48 grams, for a 2,000-calorie diet.
A 16-ounce Rockstar Punched tropical guava-flavored energy drink has 62 grams of sugar, more than the daily recommendation for added sugar.
“People are wired from an early age to like sweetness and fats,” Story said, citing misleading labeling for perpetuating the overconsumption of added-sugar calories. “You can put health claims and nutrition claims and pictures of fruit on a label. Look at SunnyD: It’s not a fruit drink, but there are pictures of fruit on the label. ”
SunnyD is primarily water and corn syrup with 2 percent or less of juice concentrate.
Story also takes aim at fruit snacks, often glorified gummy bears, that show fruit on the labels, as well as a growing array of toddler milks and plant-based milks often formulated with lots of added sugar.
“There was always a sense that [obesity] was the individual’s fault. It’s really the environment that people live in. Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food,” she said.
Artificial sweeteners aren’t the answer, either.
“Artificial sweeteners don’t have the regular satiety effect, and they still expose children to sweetness,” Story said.
Daniel Lubetzky, the billionaire chief executive of the Kind snack company, has begun waging his own battle about added-sugar labeling.
“The sugar industry for nearly 70 years intentionally confused consumers,” Lubetzky said. “They knew the deleterious impact of sugar on our health, and they found ways to cover it up and point the finger at fat. You can call something healthy, and it can be primarily made of sugar. You can have a fortified water that contains 60 percent of your daily sugar, but you don’t have to disclose that. There are special interests that advocate for their industry.”
Lubetzky argues that the U.S. agricultural system is designed to favor crops that yield unhealthful processed foods and that more nutritionally dense products typically are 10 times the price.
Consumer education on added sugars is also a problem, Lubetzky says: There are more than 100 names for sugars and sweeteners. He points to a recent and controversial Lancet article on global health and diet. It found that around the planet consumption of nearly all healthful foods and nutrients was suboptimal, whereas that of all unhealthful items exceeded the recommended level, specifically calling out sugary beverages, sodium and processed and red meat as unhealthful. It also found a disproportionate burden in low-income settings.
"The punchline is that more people are dying today because of what they eat than because of alcohol abuse and tobacco. Infectious diseases are being conquered and are on the decline, but inflammatory diseases like obesity and heart disease are exploding,” he said.
When the SNAP program started in the 1960s, the aim was to get sufficient calories to low-income Americans. With skyrocketing obesity rates among the poor, limiting empty calories from sugary drinks and junk food doesn’t seem wrongheaded.
Limiting unhealthy food purchases with SNAP dollars might not be the answer, but according to Lubetzky, labeling transparency and consumer education are imperative for all of us.
The Texas bill, if passed, would take effect Sept. 1.