With Halloween coming up this week, John Oliver used the holiday as a segue into a hard-hitting commentary last night on the troubling practices of America's sugar industry. The crux of it is that cloying amounts of sugar are hardly something we only find in candy corn, tootsie rolls, and lollipops today. Rather, spoonfuls of the stuff can be found in everything from fruit drinks to salad dressings, cereals, crackers, and ketchup. And, most worryingly, regulators aren't doing enough to help everyone understand how much sugar they're putting into their bodies. "We have no idea how prevalent sugar is in almost everything we eat," he said.
Oliver uses Clamato juice, most famous for its use in cocktails, as an example. It's hardly something anyone would associate with sweetness, and yet one serving has 11 grams of sugar. And examples are everywhere—Mother Jones, for instance, chronicled a number of surprisingly sugary foods last year, including Subway sandwiches, Luna granola bars, Yoplait yogurt, and California Pizza Kitchen salads. Flavor-enhancing techniques have long relied on sugar boosts to make foods more appetizing.
The FDA, for its part, has proposed a new nutrition label that will better communicate the amount of "added sugar"—how much of any given food's sugar content wasn't in the food before it was produced and packaged. But the proposal, which was first put on the table at the beginning of the year, has met fierce opposition from the cash-rich sugar industry. "Being forced to reveal how much sugar you are adding to people's food might seem pretty mild, but there is no way the food manufacturing industry is going to let that happen," Oliver said.
A letter written last month on behalf of the American Bakers Association, American Beverage Association, American Frozen Foods Institute, Corn Refiners Association, International Dairy Foods Association and National Confectioners Association pleas with the FDA to reconsider the proposed change. At a public meeting held earlier this summer, a representative for the American Frozen Food Institute said he believes "certain aspects of the proposal lack some merit, particularly the addition of added sugar." Andrew Briscoe, the president of the Sugar Association, expressed a similar reluctance about the additional labeling, too. “There is no preponderance of evidence to justify an added sugar label," he said at the meeting.
Not even the FDA, however, manages to escape Oliver's criticism. Part of the problem, he argues, is the way the industry conveys sugar content. The industry currently displays sugar content in grams, but few people understand exactly how much a gram is. "The only reason the beverage people [The American Beverage Association] want sugar to be measured in grams instead of teaspoons is that people understand what a teaspoon is," Oliver said. "No one understands the metric system, which is why this proposed FDA food label is completely missing the point. If they really want us to understand how much sugar is in our food, they need to find a measurement we can immediately grasp."