by Leslie Anne Lee
When someone digs their spoon into a colossal triple fudge sundae the last thing on their mind is the morality of their decision. Food, especially food that satisfies the sweet tooth, is something that everyone enjoys. No one is more mindful of this than those putting the sugary sweetness into the food we eat. While licking the spoon drenched in sucrose delight may satisfy our cravings, it may not necessarily benefit our well-being. And although many food production and marketing companies are well aware of the high-calorie count in their food and the effect an overload of sugar can have on the body, they are continuously dumping more sugar into their foods. Over and over again these empiric corporations have found ways to slip through honestly disclosing what is in their products. What’s even more disconcerting, is the fact that while new studies are revealing the alarming amounts of sugar in the food that is consumed, people are still eating the same thing. As a result, the corporations may be filling their pockets with the profits, but the consumer is losing out on a diet that benefits their health.
The use and consumption of sugar has been a debate since before corporations began mass-producing sugary foods for the consumer. Because of the high esteem the consumer has always held for sugar, those involved in the process of distributing it have discovered its power and tried to harness it. When the use of sugar first gained momentum in England, those with control over its sales realized that the demand for sugar would always outweigh the cost of its production. In Sweetness and Power, the author comments that “The planters, bankers, slavers, shippers, refiners, grocers and people in government whose interests lay along such lines or who accurately foretold the unfolding fiscal responsibilities were among those groups whose power counted in this story” (Mintz, 170). This commentary alludes to the fact that very early on in the history of sugar consumption those with control of the market understood the power, not to mention wealth, sugar would bring them. Those creating sugary substances for consumer intake understand that the consumer wants to eat sugar, regardless of the health concerns.
Many articles have been published to expose the practice of increasing or changing the amount of sugar in foods to keep the buyer wanting more. An example of this would be an article published in USA Today which states that “Nearly half of the added sugar in American diets comes from sweetened beverages, such as sodas and sports drinks” (Szabo, 03a). American diets are riddled with sugar that many consumers do not even realize they are eating. Currently, food labels only disclose the total amount of sugar within a product, not the number of sugars added. Added sugar is what manufacturers put into a product in addition to the sugar that is already part of the product. These added sugars tend to sweeten the food and make it more desirable to the buyer. Regardless of how it may taste in the end, added sugars make a product far less healthy.
Those in opposition to this argument would say that sugar is found in almost every type of manufactured food. Therefore, the consumer needs to want to eat sugar to be able to purchase any form of processed food. The same article in USA Today quotes the Sugar Institute as stating that, “As with past examples of dietary guidance not based on strong scientific evidence, such as eggs, the ‘added sugars’ guidance will eventually be reversed. The lack of scientific rigor in this process has and will continue to result in consumer apathy, distrust, and confusion” (Szabo, 03a). Essentially what this statement is saying is that scientific reports made in opposition to a high sucrose amount in food are not sustained by enough facts to warrant removing certain amounts of sugar from foods. The argument against sugar has also dwindled due to reports issuing one set of facts, such as condemning the use of sugar and then being disproved. An example of these scientific bungled reports would be the massive amounts of research that was done condemning the consumption of eggs because they were thought to be too high in cholesterol. However, it was eventually discovered that eggs, as with most things eaten within moderation, are good for you and packed with nutrients. So to eat one egg a day is no more harmful than to eat a piece of fruit that contains a small dose of natural sugar.
Indeed, many would argue that sugar in moderated quantities is good for you. In Sugar and Power, mid-nineteenth century broker George R. Porter states that “Sugar for a great part of our population is a stimulant, a source for immediate energy if not inspiration” (Mintz, 177). Sugar does have positive effects on the body in that it is a carbohydrate and therefore gives the body energy. In an article written for One Green Planet it is stated that,
“Glucose is considered the good sugar, and an important form of human energy found in complex carbohydrates. To put it simply, fructose, again occurring in plants, is considered the bad sugar, but not in its original form, fruit. A piece of fruit also contains fiber, meaning the body gets all of its benefits” (Glass, 1).
This means that sugar is a primary form of energy for the body. Carbohydrates are generally what the body tends to draw its energy from. Sugar in small and appropriate doses can offer the human body the energy boost it needs, though usually, these boosts are short-lived. Additionally, if sugar is consumed from eating fruit, then the body is also getting fiber, which the body also needs. Mintz further reiterates this fact by stating, “the human diet since the invention of agriculture has centered upon a core complex carbohydrate ‘fringed’ with contrasting tastes and textures to stimulate the appetite” (Mintz, 192). This quote is stating carbohydrates have been the focal point of the human diet for a long time. And while the variations within this staple part of our diets (i.e. the various uses of sugar) have changed in texture and taste, sugar has consistently been used.
While there are many valid arguments in favor of sugar, this does not dismiss the evidence that shows food manufacturers continuously change, increase, and lie about the amounts of sugar they put in their products. In Fed Up, a documentary about the reality of what we eat, it is revealed that the initial dietary guidelines issued by the U.S. government 30 years ago omitted sugar as a culprit in the increasing risks of things like obesity and diabetes, particularly in children. Because of this, obesity has risen to alarming rates and children have grown up more obese than their parents before them. Due to this correlation between the high-sugar diets and failing health has come to light, sugar industries who have seemingly unlimited power have fought back against parents and Congress who have demanded healthier diets for children.
In “Sugar Overload” author Kate Lunau comments on the fact that today there is sugar in almost everything we eat. “Sugar and its ilk (including high- fructose corn syrup) are added to nearly everything we consume. Pasta sauce. Bread. Salad dressing. Peanut butter. One tablespoon of ketchup can contain as much as a teaspoon of sugar” (Lunau, 41). Because there is sugar in everything, it means it is nearly impossible to stay away from. This all-inclusive immersion of sugar into the daily lives of the consumer gives the production companies complete and total control of what we consume and how often we consume it. No matter how we may try to stay away from sugar, it is hidden everywhere. And even though the consumer may try to read labels and interpret what it within their food, it is nearly impossible to find the truth amidst all the ingredients. For example, one might think that by reading a label they are only consuming a certain amount of sugar. However, the majority of this sugar may be added and not natural, and therefore not as healthy. The consumer has no way of knowing this since labels will only tell you the total amount of sugar, not what is natural and what is added. Lunau also quotes Pulitzer prize winner Michael Moss in her article:
“Industry loves it when we concentrate our concern on one thing, whether it’s sugar, fat or salt, because they can adjust. They can lower the amount of sugar, and boost fat and salt, and put it on shelves next to the regular version. It will increase sales, not diminish them” (Lunau, 45).
This reflects the industry’s intent on selling food for the benefit of profit, not the benefit of the consumer’s health. Because they have found loopholes in which to hide the true content of their products, they can distract the shopper with good marketing and hide the amount of sugar and other products, that, when consumed in large amounts, are unhealthy. As Mintz further states, “For sucrose sellers, the aim is to increase the role of the market in consumption” (Mintz, 194). Meaning, that the more appealing the item is to the consumer, the bigger the profit will be for the seller. The reality is, however, that it does not matter if the package can be resealed, is recyclable, or comes with a prize inside, the amount of sugar within a product is still intended to hook the buyer, whether it is healthy or not.
Sugar advocates would argue that there is no definitive amount of sugar that is deemed unhealthy. Contributors to the Carbohydrate News would say there is no way to determine at what level of intake sugar becomes unhealthy. For example, when it comes to the connection between sugar and obesity, they stated in “Dietary Reference for Intake of Sugars” that, “There is no clear and consistent association between increased intake of added sugars and body mass index (BMI). It was noted that higher intakes of total or added sugars are associated with a lower incidence of obesity” (Marsden, 2). This statement suggests that in this particular set of studies, there is a lower occurrence of obesity and no direct correlation between sugar and a higher BMI. Furthermore, these studies state that a certain amount of sugar is necessary for various bodily functions such as brain activity. “The average amount of carbohydrate (primarily sugars and starches) required to provide the brain with an adequate supply of glucose was determined to be 100 g/day for individuals one year of age or older” (Marsden, 1). This report further reiterates the opinion that sugar is not only healthy for you but necessary. Food production companies use research like this to further drive their sales and marketing.
Lunau does an excellent job of explaining just how good of a job they do. “In a new study that looked at 65 cereals in 10 different U.S. supermarkets, researchers from Cornell found that those intended for kids are placed half as high on shelves; about 58 cm, compared to 122 for adults. What’s truly unnerving, though, is their second finding – that colorful mascots on those boxes gaze downward, on average, at a 9.6-degree angle, so their eyes essentially follow kids” (Lunau, 45). To the consumer, especially the parent, this should be extremely disconcerting – that marketers would intentionally place their sugary children’s cereal where their characters can follow children who are eager to indulge. Furthermore, the findings recorded in an article by Joanna Blythman for the newspaper, The Guardian, reveal how secretive manufacturers are about their products and procedures in making them. Blythman went undercover at an ingredient suppliers’ convention to uncover the truth behind what was in products. She writes that “Over the past few years, the food industry has embarked on an operation it dubs ‘clean label,’ with the goal of removing the most glaring industrial ingredients and additives, replacing them with substitutes that sound altogether more benign” (Blythman, 3). The fact remains that these ingredients are no less harmful than the ones that sound completely foreign. As mentioned before, the changing of the packaging or the label on the outside does not deter from what is on the inside. These sneaky practices only further reiterate the fact that food corporations are only out to make money.
And they have their creativity down to a science. In “Why Fries Taste So Good,” author Eric Schlosser discusses how those that create marketing techniques for various food products use everything from taste to scent to entice the buyer. For example, McDonald’s has found a unique combination of ingredients that give their fries their signature taste. “McDonald’s cooked its French fries in a mixture of about 7 percent cottonseed oil and 93 percent beef tallow. The mix gave the fries their unique flavor – and more saturated beef fat per ounce than a McDonald’s hamburger” (Schlosser, 20). Schlosser goes on to explain how, after an onslaught of criticism, McDonald’s made the complaints disappear by stating on their list of ingredients that it was “natural flavor.” Schlosser goes on to comment that “Scientists now believe that human beings acquired the sense of taste as a way to avoid being poisoned” (Schlosser, 22). This ability to differentiate between flavors has also given human beings a craving for things that taste good. Those working in food companies to produce the best taste possible and still make a profit have become wizards at what they do. For example, Schlosser comments that “The flavor in a twelve-ounce can of Coke costs about half a cent” (Schlosser, 25). While cheap, these chemicals usually end up being more toxic than beneficial.
As Mintz states, “Refined sugar [has become] a symbol of the modern and the industrial” (Mintz, 193). Sugar, along with countless other ingredients have been added, manipulated, and manufactured to entice the consumer. What was once nearly impossible to get because of its price, is now part of nearly every item sold in the stores. Scientists have created modern forms of technology to not only create various forms of sugar but create the replicated taste of sugar. The fact that human beings crave sweet things, gives the manufacturers complete and total control. In “The Bittersweet Truth,” Jennifer L. Pomeranz states that while sugar is naturally found in fruits and vegetables, “the majority of sugar is added to processed foods and beverages” (Pomeranz, e14). This means that despite the argument that some sugar is beneficial, the reality is that most of the sugar that is consumed is added and therefore unhealthy.
Statistics repeatedly show that many consumers do not care enough about their health to alter their eating habits or attempt to become better aware of what they are eating. The FDA has tried to regulate the production of food, but the powerhouse corporations have repeatedly come up with excuses that are backed by the law. Organizations in favor of sugar will continuously say that there is no evidence to prove at what amount sugar becomes unhealthy for the consumer. Time and time again companies have been called to be held accountable for the deceitful methods they use to entice the consumers. These methods have resulted in children fighting obesity and diabetes. But they continuously show that their only concern in making a profit. As Mintz states, “It (sugar) was symbolically powerful, for its use could be endowed with many subsidiary meanings. No wonder the rich and powerful liked it so much, and no wonder the poor learned to love it” (Mintz, 186). Over the centuries this power over the consumer has grown to grossly obscene proportions and has made the seller richer and the consumer fatter. Daniel Lee, a representative of a local farm company, stated that “Most corporation managers only want profit. Some, especially those that are run locally actually care about their employers and their people. They try to find a way to make things better. But for the most part, it’s all about greed.” Sadly, this all too real fact seems to be increasing. What’s worse is that any sort of moral choice when it comes to food production is disappearing beneath mounds of fat, salt, and of course, sugar.
A little bit of Dickens and a whole lot of Austen.