New Call to Regulate Sugar

Last year, the New York Times profiled Robert Lustig, the leading expert in childhood obesity at UC San Francisco's School of Medicine. The article, subtly titled "Is Sugar Toxic?," explored Lustig's efforts to convince the American public that sugar is, yes, a toxin, to say nothing of "evil." Lustig is back, this time in the February 2 issue of the journal Nature (hidden behind a paywall). Together with two other health-policy researchers, he argues that the government should regulate sugar to protect public health.

Growing scientific evidence, the authors write, "shows that fructose can trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity and a host of other chronic diseases. A little is not a problem, but a lot kills—slowly. If international authorities are truly concerned about public health, they must consider limiting fructose—and its main delivery vehicles, the added sugars HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) and sucrose— which pose dangers to individuals and to society as a whole."

In addition to the widely floated ideas of taxing soda or products with added sugars, or curbing the availability of sugary foods in schools and the advertising that promotes them, Lustig and co. prescribe combating this societal ill via a couple of decidedly more invasive tactics: removing sugar from the Food and Drug Administration's "Generally Recognized as Safe" honor roll; imposing an age limit on those allowed to buy sugary beverages; and legally prohibiting children from patronizing crackhouses convenience stores.

And so we revisit the familiar battle that breaks out whenever wonks propose that the government save us from ourselves. On one side are those who maintain it's their God-given right to eat, drink, and smoke whatever they want, regardless of whether it dooms them to an early grave or causes their unborn kids to grow gills. On the other side are those who argue that since we aren't willing to take responsibility for what—and how much—we stick in our pie holes, it's up to the government to play Father Knows Best.

And then there are those (myself included) who concede that sugar is best consumed in moderation. Sure, it causes chronic conditions like diabetes and obesity, but hardly deserves to be classed with booze and cigarettes. A law prohibiting unaccompanied minors from convenience stores after school is ridiculous: What about kids who just want to buy a pack of gum or a bag of chips? (The latter, of course, will also make them fat and dead.) Why not, as the endlessly argued soda tax proposes to do, put the onus on manufacturers instead?

Actually, that's what the researchers say they hope to do. In a press release, Laura Schmidt, one of the proposal's authors, clarified that she and her co-authors don't want to shut down bakeries or outlaw snickerdoodles, only bring the hammer down on added sugars like high-fructose corn syrup, and to "make sugar consumption slightly less convenient, thereby moving people away from the concentrated dose." The proposed regulations, Schmidt said, would "actually increase people's choices by making foods that aren't loaded with sugar comparatively easier and cheaper to get."

Regardless of how you feel about the proposal, maybe the saddest thing about it is the zero confidence it expresses in Americans to accept responsibility for dietary choices and act accordingly. Lustig, of course, has argued that the chemical effects of sugar make us its slaves, and that personal choice has nothing to do with consumption. But given that the government won't even impose regulations to prevent the airline industry from treating passengers like battery hens, it looks like self-policing may be the only realistic option.

Image source: Flickr member Uwe Hermann under Creative Commons

Rebecca Flint Marx eats and writes in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.