How Sweet It Isn't

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Some pundits concerned about health conditions linked to dietary excess are proposing draconian fixes. The problem, though, is that these drastic fixes are broken to start with. Perhaps most wrong-headed of all is the argument made for regulating the consumption of foods with added sugars as though they were cigarettes or alcoholic beverages. Sin taxes, age restrictions, food stamp limitations: as with alcohol and tobacco, so with added sugar, goes the logic.

The anti-sugar party line, recently amplified by Dr. Robert Lustig s commentary in Nature, is that such foods are addictive and dangerous just like alcohol and cigarettes. Lustig and his followers advise us to avoid these toxic foods altogether. And The New York Times Mark Bittman echoes him, reminding us that there is no nutritional need for foods with added sugar.

While this latter observation is true enough, what such a critique neglects to mention is that there is no nutritional need for any particular food with or without sugars of any kind. Indeed, after infancy, there is no essential food at all. What is essential are nutrients: vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and proteins. And as long as these needs are met, it doesn t particularly matter whether a given vitamin comes from salmon or from fortified breakfast cereal with or without added sugar.

Furthermore, these would-be sugar police seem to forget that we don t eat solely to meet nutritional needs. A range of cultural practices, social settings, and personal preferences inform our food choices. Suggesting that governmental regulation can surmount this variety of factors and result in a better diet seems either naïve or, more likely, based on some ideological inclination rather than nutritional concerns.

Even if we did agree to such regulation, how would it be enacted? Would children no longer be allowed their chocolate milk even the low fat variety containing all the protein and calcium of the unflavored product because it contains added sugar? If foods with added sugar were lumped onto the list of items that can t be purchased with food stamps as more than a few of these prohibitionists have proposed imagine sorting through every new grocery item that comes down the pike. And one wonders whether taxes on sugar-sweetened foods would go toward the extra tax dollars needed to enforce the age-restriction on soda?

The regulation of cigarettes and alcohol is not an adequate model for policies applied to foods. Cigarettes are both addictive and without any redeeming health value whatsoever, and alcohol when used intemperately can lead to intoxication or organ damage. But while it s possible to eliminate these products from one s regimen, the same cannot be said of food.

In truth, the most dangerous aspect of foods in our well-supplied culture is consuming too much of them. Even if foods with added sugars were eliminated completely, there s no guarantee that people would become more judicious in their food choices or about the amount of food they consume. And there s the rub in the midst of an unprecedented abundance of food choices, many consumers don t understand how to choose healthful diets. Regardless of whether one shops at the most pristine of farmers markets or the local supermarket, choices must be made. While it s easy to demonize individual foods or in this case, ingredients it s not so easy to regulate the multitude of individual choices that make up any one person s diet.

Instead of enacting punitive regulations, if we really want people to make more healthful choices, we need to inform and empower them to make choices that are meaningful to them. School-related programs that educate children and parents about exercise and healthful eating that s affordable to them are a more productive, long term approach. Such efforts will ultimately go further than simply dictating what people can and cannot buy.

Just saying no may work with tobacco and alcohol, but we need a different approach when it comes to food.