A Little Bit of Sugar

November 8, 2011 in Nutrition, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

A handout from the Sugar Association entitled “Not Empty Calories” ends with the words “The old saw, ‘a little goes a long way’ holds true for foods made with sugar.” I obtained this handout at the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) in San Diego this past September 2011. I accepted the materials from The Sugar Association out of curiosity; I was curious about what they wanted Registered Dietitians (R.D.) to convey to their clients/patients about sugar.

This closing sentence is given in a wise and moderate tone, and is one we can all agree with, but it is not a summary of the article. These educational sheets on sugar are not accompanied by a program to get food manufacturers to reduce the enormous excess amounts of sugar in cereals, and beverages; it is just a series of arguments given in a moderate tone to give sugar advocates something to say in the face of the increasing evidence about the damaging effects of excess sugar in diets.

When reading the articles my first thought was – good grief! The Sugar Association is running scared. That made me feel a little pleased – a glimmer of hope has surfaced; maybe the public health educators are getting through to the public — maybe we’re not wasting our breath. Proponents for sugar realize that they’ve got to get the public thinking positively about sugar consumption. Just think about what the Corn Refiners have done for high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), with their massive campaign — not that HCFS is a healthy food, but that it has the same effect in the body as sugar.

There is nothing in this massively expensive advertizing campaign that encourages moderation. There is no program to draw attention to the foods and drinks that violate, often obscenely violate, the good sense of this closing sentence. It is a campaign of misdirection, to shift the burden onto consumers unequipped to deal with it.  Our only tool as consumers is not to buy the excessively sugary junk food that violates the canons of moderation and good sense, and they have ample evidence that the majority of us do not have the knowledge or desire to do so.

The ‘sugar’ materials that I received from FNCE (colorful, nicely formatted and printed on high quality shiny stock) are available for free to R.D.’s to distribute. They are also published online – you can see all the materials on the drop down tab called Sugar & Your Diet.

I’m not naïve enough to think that The Sugar Association would refrain from promoting sugar, but it is so blatantly obvious that these moderate statements are not aimed at their main customers, the food processors, who care nothing about public health or moderation. Since this is not their goal, it made me more than a little shocked by some of the materials. I’m not going to do a complete review of all their articles, just the Not Empty Calories one.

In reality, the Not Empty Calories article never addresses the fact that sugar does not supply any nutrients – only calories, tooth decay and challenging our pancreas. Sugar, in all its forms, is the ultimate example of the definition of empty calories – it supplies nothing but calories. Calories - that’s it! They make points about non-nutritive functions sugar has, but that does nothing to prove that the calories are not empty.

The Sugar Association’s argument is essentially that the sweetness of sugar, which comes with the calories, enables it to be used to induce people to eat things that do have nutrients. They point out that you can put sugar in healthy foods to help people/children to eat the healthy foods. They use milk as one of their examples. As related to milk, my thoughts are that, sugar milk (chocolate or strawberry) should be considered dessert – a once in a while item. They use the example of the Connecticut school district who eliminated sugared milk – the consumption of milk declined by 63 percent. Maybe what we should really learn from this is that we should have never served the sugared milk at school to begin with. Do we think it is a good idea to serve candy bars instead of the entrée if that will help the children eat the healthy nuts in the candy?

The truth of the matter is that the food industry has used sugar, now quite inexpensive, to replace healthy foods that contain nutrients, reducing the cost to the manufacturer, and providing a large profit margin for massive advertizing and coupons. I’ve written articles about cereal in the past, but just to review one small aspect of sugar in cereal.

Mary Poppins would easily see through the smoke screen being used to obscure profitable but unhealthy overuse of sugar.  She suggested a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, even if the medicine is whole grain cereal. But do we really need to add 7 teaspoons per serving? Some cereals are more than 50% sugar. If you serve an ounce or two of cereal, that ½ to 1 ounce of sugar; translated into teaspoons would be 3.5 to 7 teaspoons of sugar. Wise and friendly Mary Poppins recommended a spoonful – not 7. Do you or your children need that many empty calories to get you to eat breakfast cereal? If you were trying to encourage the grain consumption (cereal), maybe reducing the sugar to a little sprinkled on the cereal would be a good place to start. The first step is getting the thinking right. Knowing how to find sugar in cereals takes detective work, but knowing that each 4 grams of sugar equals a teaspoon – and 15 calories – may help you to identify cereal with too much added sugar.

Each day, the government and taxpayers pay for the purchase of 20 million servings of sugar-sweetened beverage to give to food stamp recipients. That’s per day! It makes no sense that we’re spending $4 billion per year for sugar-sweetened beverages for food stamp recipients (SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Nutrition??? The idea of SNAP is supposed to be to provide food security, but instead we’re allowing the calories of a nutritionally impoverished food – sugar to be provided.

Walter Willet of The Harvard School of Public Health said; “... we’re writing checks, with one hand, for billions of dollars per year to buy soda within the food stamp SNAP program. And then, again, we’re, with the other hand, writing checks for treating diabetes. It just is nuts.” ...I think it may just take outrage and political pressure from the American public, who should be fed up with this practice.”

I think that Mary Poppins had it right. A spoonful is not going to poison us, but drinking it down 12 ounces at a time (9 to 18 teaspoons in one 12-ounce can.) Or eating sugar for breakfast and sugar deserts and snacks throughout the day are adding to our obesity problem and ultimately leading to health problems like diabetes and heart disease. We need to get the sugar monster under control, by thinking about where the sugar is sneaking into our diet and making plans to reduce the amount we’re consuming. My feeling is that we need to speak to our elected officials – help them get their thinking cleared up, too.