Sugar Showdown: Your Health, Katie Couric, and the Food Industry

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Katie Couric’s recent documentary Fed Up and her challenge to Americans that they attempt going sugar-free for ten days got us thinking about sugar, diets, addiction, and weight. It turns out we aren’t the only ones. The movie and challenge were meant to raise awareness of what is in our food and teach people to pay attention to what is written on nutrition labels — but not everyone agrees with the claims.

The International Food Information Council Foundation issued a press release fact checking certain claims made by the movie. It reached the conclusion that the movie is undermined by incorrect statements, and that it misses a larger picture by only focusing on sugar. The Daily Meal points out that the council has ties to large food manufacturers, like Coca-Cola. “FedUpFacts” was launched by the Grocery Manufacturers Association to defend food manufacturing companies and promote the work they have done — such as cutting calories from products — to try and pitch in against obesity. This is true; in January, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced that sixteen companies sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in 2012 than what was sold in 2007. 

So is any of this focus on sugar worthwhile? Additional calories are, after all, why people gain weight. If those are being cut, does this sugar scrutiny matter, and is it really that detrimental to our health. Or, like the International Food Information Council Foundation states, is too much attention being give to one specific ingredient? Like so many things in life, it depends on who you ask.

For the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), more attention absolutely needs to be showered on sugar, despite what large food manufacturers would lead us to believe. The UCS states that these companies are also engaged in deceptive practices and form part of the problem, not the solution. By advertising to receptive groups, like children, companies use marketing ploys to promote products that are high in sugar, associating the item with healthy words like “fruit.” A link is then formed even though the advertised product does not have the health benefits of a whole piece of fruit.

Instead, the person gets added sugars, often at a rate higher than what they would estimate they consume. This can have deadly consequences; in February, at study published in JAMA Internal Medicine linked high rates of sugar consumption to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death. As an empty calorie, added sugar is also linked to weight gain, and sugar in general can cause dental health issues.

In March, health concerns such as these lead the World Health Organization to state it was opening public consultation for its revised sugar guidelines. Under the new guidelines, people would be advised to have sugar comprise less than 5 percent of their daily caloric intake — roughly 6 teaspoons. Current guidelines for consumption are around 10 percent. Not included in this lower guideline are natural sugars. Instead, the focus of the World Health Organization, Couric’s documentary, and the Union of Concerned Scientists is on the added sugars in our diets.

Writing for a Food Network blog in 2013, Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, said that the most significant source of added sugars for Americans are in the form of ice cream, cookies, soft drinks, etc. Highlighting a point that the UCS also makes, White stated that food manufacturers want consumers to believe that the natural sugar category is larger than it is. “Despite what food marketers might lead you to believe, there are only 2 forms of natural sugars – the kind found in milk (lactose) and the kind found in fruit (fructose),” White wrote.

The difference is not in how the body processes sugar, but can be found in the other nutrients contained in milk and fruit. With protein, fiber, and vitamins, natural sugars are the clear winners over the granulated, high-fructose, syrup, or fruit juice concentrate varieties. Unfortunately, just looking at the sugar content of a product isn’t enough, and consumers need to become adept at reading labels to be able to identify the type of sugar being used.

The Harvard School of Public Health went further in explaining how to do this. In a publication about added sugars, it cautions against being convinced that honey or brown sugar is somehow a “better” option when the body does not distinguish between the two. The same goes for sweeteners like agave that do not fall within the technical definition of sugar, and are therefore listed under this alias while still being an added sugar.

Whether or not you agree with all of the claims in Fed Up doesn’t change the basic principle that is being repeated by dietitians and other health-minded organizations. Knowing what kind of sugar you are eating is key, because that way you’ll be able to understand if there are any natural benefits to be reaped, or if you’re only being rewarded with empty calories and deceptive marketing.

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