Avoiding the Big Gulp

Avoiding the Big Gulp and claiming your health: sugar in the news and on the food label
By: Bobby Saccone

Soda, or a LOT of soda, has been all over the news thanks to Mayor Bloomberg’s ‘soda ban’. The logic behind the ban is the high sugar and calorie content of the soda, overconsumption of which has links to obesity and other health problems. Not everyone agrees that limiting our ability to slurp the sweet stuff is the way forward. State Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling said the 16-ounce limit on sodas and some other sweet drinks arbitrarily applies to only some sugary beverages and some places that sell them and stated “ the loopholes in this rule effectively defeat the stated purpose of this rule.” Let’s chalk one up for the restaurants and other retail outlets targeted that called this ban unjust …and the beverage industry.

Loopholes abound in food policy. In 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was instituted and is responsible for the nutrition facts label as we know it today. This federal code is also intended to assure that all health claims on packaged foods are consistent with terms defined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the home of the FDA. Here-in lies the problem. There are three distinctly different types of nutrient claims: 1. Nutrient content claims, for example allowing a product to call itself low-fat if it contains 3 grams or less of total fat for a given reference amount, 2. Structure/function claims that describe the role of a nutrient intended to affect normal structure or function, for example “helps maintain cardiovascular function,” and 3. Health claims, for products containing a defined amount of a nutrient that is directly linked to a health-related condition such as fiber and “protects against heart disease and lowers cholesterol”.

So what’s wrong with nutrient claims? Nobody really knows the difference and only health claims are regulated. Consumers are confused and view most advertisements on food similarly. Misleading? Take cereals for example, where a plethora of claims and labels within labels abound. A typical cereal marketed at kids that is devoid of any innate nutritional qualities can promote strong bones by adding vitamins and minerals and tout itself as low-fat, despite the fact that the average 2 or more servings at a time ingested yields 24 to 30 grams of sugar.

And how about sugar? All major players in public health including the FDA appointed Institutes of Medicine, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and leading researchers in both Harvard and Tufts University food policy centers are in consensus about how to make the nutrition label easier to understand to make comparisons that matter to most consumers among products. They are:

1. Consistent front-of-the package labels that include listing the amount of sugars per serving
2. Separating added sugars from naturally occurring (in fruit and dairy) by requiring companies to list added sugars under the carbohydrate category on food labels
3. Find viable ways to tax sugar and lobby or industry to reformulate products to contain less sugar
4. Set a Daily Value (DV) for sugar on the label with realistic portion sizes. For example, many Mothers will balk at seeing 120% DV of added sugar in one bottle of soda

Industry pressures made the FDA abandon consistent front of the package labeling by jumping the gun and promoting only the nutrients they wanted to expose before legislation started. Companies also complained that it was too difficult to separate naturally and intentionally added sugars, despite the fact that advertising the addition of any other dietary ingredient or nutrient is commonplace. Taxing requires industry buy-in and can be regressive and daily values are known to be poorly understood by consumers.

So what about the Mayor’s bold move? Consumption of sugars has tripled over the last 50 years. Public Health recommendations to restrict sugars to 10% of calories or less would mean that having more than one 16-ounce beverage a day not to mention sugar in any other form would be too much for the majority of all people, regardless of age, gender, and size. The Mayor’s sugar-sweetened beverage stance has provided a platform to think critically about where American sentiments stand on issues of public health, individual rights, commerce, and governance. The ban has opened the conversation about food and health in ways other injunctions have not.

Bloomberg’s initiative has masterfully ignited a flame in the American public that goes far beyond a bottomless cup of a sweet and fizzy potion. Is it just the stimulus package Americans need to ask for reform in their food purchases or is it feeding the proverbial flame the beverage industry teases our taste buds with? At face value, people are talking about food politics, a conversation that is long overdue, from “nanny state” imposed laws to the yet to be written next chapter of the role of governance in food as it relates to public health, particularly obesity.

Maybe that is where the Mayor’s message really falls short. Reducing obesity’s etiology to a singular food verses a diet may seem simplistic, yet there is profuse agreement among scientists and researchers on the negative health impacts caused by sugar, with beverages taking the leading role, especially among children. Still, trying to make the case that people are dying every day from obesity related causes is one thing; making the jump to indict supersized beverages containing the ose’s (dextrose, fructose, maltose, etc. ) is another.

It is not difficult to hypothesize why the American Beverage Association, a conglomerate of makers of these syrupy fluids, is speaking out. What is perplexing, or perhaps ingenious, is what they are saying: that this unpopular ban opens the door for other “solutions that will have a meaningful and lasting impact.” What will these solutions look like? A new supermarket aisle laden with stevia infused zero calorie cola and chromium enhanced chia seed siphoned effervescence made with the newest zero calorie natural sweetener? Are innovations like this the answer? Probably not, but at least physical activity may increase- at some point it may take an entire day to walk the supermarket aisles!

Dietary Guidelines for Americans from 1980 through 2010:

1980 Avoid too much sugar.

1985 Avoid too much sugar.

1990 Use sugars only in moderation.

1995 Choose a diet moderate in sugars.

2000 Choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars.

2005 Choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners, such as amounts suggested by the USDA Food Guide and the DASH eating plan.

2010 Reduce the intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars.

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