by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Sugars

Oct 15 2009

Connecticut takes on Smart Choices!

Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Attorney General, says he is about to conduct an investigation into the Smart Choices program because it is “overly simplistic, inaccurate and ultimately misleading.”   Recall that Froot Loops, a product with sugar as its first ingredient, qualifies as a better-for-you option.  Apparently, Mr. Blumenthal is talking to the Attorneys General of other states and several want to join his investigation.  While they are at it, maybe they should also take a look at the role of the American Society of Nutrition in developing and managing this program.

But count on the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) to defend Froot Loops as a Smart Choice.  Explains ACSH’s Jeff Stier:

Froot Loops and Lucky Charms have the ‘Smart Choices’ label. They have sugar in them, but they also contain half of a person’s daily requirement of some vitamins. If we’re able to give kids those nutrients, it should be okay to give them some sugar. If they sold these products without sugar, kids wouldn’t eat them, or they might end up adding even more on their own….Don’t companies have the right to say those foods are better than others? It’s not as if they are making specific health claims, rather these are just comparative claims.

This Richard Blumenthal is the same one who has been seeking to ban e-cigarettes…Connecticut may have more serious problems to focus on than banning e-cigarettes and worrying about companies trying to point consumers to healthier products. Froot Loops obviously isn’t the healthiest food out there, but it’s better than many others.

It’s that debatable philosophic argument again: Is a so-called “better-for-you” product necessarily a good choice?

[Note: I’m in Rome this week and am most grateful to the six people who sent me the Times article and the two who sent the ACSH post.  Thanks so much!]

Sep 21 2009

How will the sugar policy crisis shake out?

My Sunday (September 20) column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the sugar “crisis” I discussed here a few weeks ago:

Q: I saw you on “The Colbert Report” (Aug. 19) talking about sugar policy. Explain, please. I don’t understand why sugar policy is a topic for Comedy Central.

A: Neither did I until I saw Stephen Colbert douse himself with 5 pounds of sugar over the impending “crisis.” We have a sugar crisis? According to processed food manufacturers, we are about to run out of sugar. Horrors!

Earlier in August, Kraft and other food processors asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to raise the quota on sugar imports. Sugar availability, they complained, is the lowest in years and it’s the USDA’s fault.

The USDA firmly controls amounts of sugar (sucrose) produced by American cane and beet growers through quotas. It even more firmly controls sugar imported from other sugar-growing countries through quotas and tariffs. And as corn is increasingly diverted to biofuels, less high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is around to make up the shortfall.

Should we worry?

The shortage is no crisis. At worst, it is temporary and will end as soon as the 2009 harvest is in. But processed food makers are right about one thing: Sugar is the most absurdly protected agricultural commodity in America.

For decades, no matter what it cost on the world market, quotas and tariffs ensured that Americans paid two or three times as much for sugar. High sugar prices cost American consumers about $3 billion a year. But because this works out “only” to about $10 per year per capita, nobody much cared.

If you think of $10 as trivial, you won’t give sugar protectionism another thought. But if you look at this system as an unnecessary transfer of $3 billion a year from 350 million Americans to a few thousand sugar growers and processors, you can understand why sugar policy is ripe for satire.

Here’s how the system works:

Quotas allow U.S. producers to grow only specified amounts of sugar cane and sugar beets each year, for which the USDA guarantees a higher-than-market price. Beets get 55 percent of the quota; cane gets 45 percent. The quotas are fixed. If you want to grow sugar beets in your backyard and sell the sugar to USDA at the favorable support price, too bad for you. You only get a quota if you already have a quota.

As for tariffs, the 2008 Farm Bill requires 85 percent of total sugar in the United States to be produced domestically, and allows only 15 percent to be imported. That 15 percent is distributed through quotas awarded to about 20 countries.

Above and beyond the quotas, imported sugar is subject to high tariffs. Mexico is an exception. Under NAFTA, Mexico gets to sell us as much sugar as it wants at the favored price. However, few countries in Africa hold quotas. What if you are an African cane-growing country and want the high quota price for your sugar? Not a chance.

Imports are never supposed to top 15 percent, so the USDA can’t increase the percentage. But we participate in the World Trade Organization, which obligates us to take world market sugar. Oops. These policies don’t match. Processed food makers must think the contradictions will allow the USDA to let in more sugar. Maybe, but the legalities are not yet decided.

Mind you, sugar producers and processors love this system. They argue that it keeps jobs in rural America and eliminates dependence on foreign sugar imports. To make sure nobody scrutinizes the system too carefully, they formed cooperatives to avoid antitrust laws.

Sugar producers are among the most generous and equal-opportunity contributors to congressional election campaigns, giving to both Democrats and Republicans. For decades, administrations of both parties have tried to end sugar supports. No such luck.

A shift’s brewing

Policies may change, because the gap between the prices for domestic and world market sugar – and for high fructose corn syrup – has narrowed recently. Sugar is now at war with HFCS. As HFCS is increasingly known as a key junk food ingredient, manufacturers are rushing to replace it with sucrose, which they can tout as “natural and unprocessed.”

Other sugar issues are also ripe for comedy. Most sugar beets are now genetically modified, leading many companies to avoid using beet sugar. In the South, sugar cane production pollutes the Everglades, which is costing billions of dollars to clean up. Investigative reporters are riveted by the feudalistic labor practices of sugar plantations.

And then there’s Cuba. Until the Castro revolution, that’s where we got most of our imported sugar. When relations improve, will Cuba get a sugar quota?

If sugar is responsible for any true crisis, it is because of its role as an ingredient in processed foods. Cheap sugar reduces the cost of candy and soft drinks. Cheap junk foods are highly profitable. Otherwise, our sugar policies make no sense in today’s global marketplace.

But we would be healthier eating less sugar, anyway. So here’s my solution to the non-crisis: Eat less sugar!

Aug 25 2009

American Heart Association: Eat (a lot!) less sugar.

At last, the American Heart Association (AHA) has done something useful.  It advises eating less sugar.  Americans eat way too much, it says, a whopping 22 teaspoons a day on average.  Let’s work this out.  A teaspoon is 4 grams.  A gram is 4 calories.  So the 275 calories in that default 20-ounce soda you picked up from a vending machine come from nearly 17 teaspoons of sugar – close to the average right there.  If you have trouble maintaining weight, soft drinks are an obvious candidate for “eat less” advice.  Neither the Wall Street Journal (in which I am quoted) nor the New York Times say much about how soft drink manufacturers are reacting to this recommendation, but it isn’t hard to guess.

Here, for example, is what the industry-sponsored American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has to say:

The study targets added sugars as the main culprit of dietary excess, but since “U.S. labels on packaged foods do not distinguish between naturally occurring or added sugars,” it is difficult to tell the difference. However, “our bodies can’t tell the difference either,” says ACSH’s Jeff Stier. “Natural and added sugars are nutritionally the same. Added sugar causes obesity as much as the orange juice promoted by the American Heart Association causes obesity [e-mail newsletter, August 25, 2009].

Smart Start

This is the first time the AHA has seriously weighed in on sugar.  I find this especially interesting because the AHA has a long history of endorsing sugary cereals (as I discuss in Food Politics and also in What to Eat).  In this example, the AHA’s endorsement is in the lower left corner.  This product has sugars of one kind or another listed 9 times in the ingredient list.

The AHA gets paid for such endorsements.  Let’s hope the new recommendation encourages the AHA to stop doing this.

Update August 27: I really don’t know what to say about the ACSH’s Jeff Stier.  he is acting more like the Center for Consumer Freedom’s Rick Berman every day.   Today’s e-mail newsletter from ACSH contains this statement:

In her blog in The Atlantic, NYU Professor of Nutrition Dr. Marion Nestle has fallen into the habit of suggesting that ACSH is incapable of objective analysis of public health concerns because we are, in her distorted view, “thoroughly industry-sponsored.”

ACSH’s Jeff Stier wrote to her editors: “Like many of the country’s top non-profits, Dr. Nestle’s NYU included, we accept corporate donations, with no strings attached. But we also receive significant support from individuals and foundations. Her misleading description of us suggests that we represent industry. We do not. We are advised by some of the nation’s leading scientists and represent consumers.

“By way of this email, I ask for a conspicuous and fair correction. We are happy to engage on the issues Dr. Nestle writes about, but her attacks on us are below someone of her stature. We’d prefer an informed and enlightening discussion of the issues, not underhanded and unfounded attacks on credibility.”

“Apparently, Dr. Nestle believes that your opinions are irrelevant, since they diverge from her ideological agenda,” says Stier. “We represent you, consumers, who want science rather than ideology informing public health decisionmaking. Does she really think that consumers are so monolithic that they either agree with her or are put up to it by some sinister entity?”

Readers: Does anyone know what is going on with this group?  It sounds so much like the Center for Consumer Freedom that I can’t help but wonder.

Feb 15 2009

Sales of HFCS-free foods zoom up

The bad press about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is having an effect.  According to figures assembled by Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru, sales of products bearing “HFCS-Free” labels almost reached a billion dollars last year.  Fruit drinks are the biggest HFCS-free category, but HFCS-free yogurts, vegetable juices, and breads are the fastest growing. Lempert doesn’t say what companies are using instead of HFCS.  If it’s sucrose, it won’t be much of an improvement.  But no wonder the Corn Refiners think they need a hefty public relations campaign.

March 21 update: This trend is a front-page story in the New York Times.

Dec 3 2008

Deli chain bans HFCS

Food Chemical News (December 1) reports that Jason’s Deli, which has more than 200 outlets throughout the U.S., is banning high fructose corn syrup from all its products as well as trying to figure out how to get it out of soft drinks.  Apparently, the chain polled customers and 65% (of nearly 3,000) said they wanted it gone.  A spokesman for the chain said they consider pure cane syrup and sugar to be “more real and…not as processed or fooled with as high-fructose corn syrup.”  Maybe, but they have the same number of calories and the same effects in the body!

Oct 5 2008

Sugars in kids’ cereals

Consumer Reports International counted the sugars and salt in kids’ products in 32 countries.  The sugars don’t look good, but they look worse in the U.S.  Kids’ cereals have lots of sugars–40% of the calories internationally but 55% in the U.S. Consumer Reports will describe the U.S. part of the survey in its November issue.  In the meantime, it says kids’ cereals changed their names from “Sugar” to “Honey” in the 1980s, but the sugars and calories are much the same.  Also in the meantime, Consumer Reports rates the cereals.  Most are the equivalent of fat-free cookies.  I wish it were easier to find a cereal that had a reasonable amount of fiber (the point of cereals, after all) and didn’t add sugars.  I’d much rather add my own, especially in the form of those crunchy brown crystals.

May 19 2008

Organic infant formula with sucrose: an oxymoron?

The New York Times reports that the organic version of Similac infant formula is made with organic cane juice – sucrose – not lactose (milk sugar). Sucrose is sweeter than lactose; infants love it. Sucrose encourages infants to drink more formula and could promote weight gain.

But the goal of formula companies is to sell as much formula as possible. Because the number of formula-drinking babies is small and fixed, they either have to expand the number of mothers who use formula (rather than breast feed), or encourage infants to drink more. Either approach raises ethical issues. But why else would Abbott Labs, the maker of Similac, put sucrose in formula and organic formula at that? Can’t the company find a source for organic lactose? Is organic cane juice cheaper? And try this for a price comparison: at my local Duane Reade, organic Similac is nearly $31 per can, whereas Earth’s Best is just $26. This makes Earth’s Best a much better buy, especially because it uses organic lactose. Sucrose in infant formula? That’s one more good reason to breast feed.

Dec 31 2007

Question of the year: high fructose corn syrup

I will end the year with the big issue of 2007: high fructose corn syrup. It is basically the same as sugar (sucrose). The “high fructose” is misleading. Sucrose is glucose and fructose (50/50). High fructose corn syrup is glucose and fructose (45/55 or 55/42). So whether you eat cane sugar, organic cane sugar, table sugar, or high fructose corn syrup, you are eating the same thing–glucose and fructose. Yes, fructose is metabolized differently, but most foods do not contain just fructose. The big issues are quantity and calories. Eating too much sugar (or starch, for that matter) is much more of a problem when there is lots of it and lots of calories from sugars or anything else. So we are back to moderation, alas. Enjoy your dessert and happy new year!