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“No Sugar Tonight”

April 24, 2012

Little did the Guess Who realize some 40 years ago that they were prophetic regarding sugar.  In fact, they were much more so, than Nancy Sinatra, who enjoyed “Sugar Town”, Sammy Davis Jr. who extolled the “Candy Man”, or the Four Seasons who found their “Candy Girl”.  

There is now overwhelming scientific evidence that sugar isn’t just empty calories but is an actual toxin to the body. The unfortunate reality of US public policy and for most of the US public is that we haven’t caught up to these facts about the dangers of sugar consumption (and particularly excessive sugar consumption).

So what is the evidence? First and foremost, everyone knows that eating too much sugar is a major contributor to obesity. In fact, the historic evidence suggest strongly that it is the PRIMARY cause. In the last 30 years, we have lowered the fat in our diets from 40 to 30% of calories, but have replaced it (and more) with sugar (i.e. either fructose or sucrose, their impact is the same) . This directly correlates with our average weight  increasing  an astonishing 25 lbs! In fact, since the early 1900s when we got all of our sugar (15 gm a day) from fruit, our sugar consumption has steadily increased to 20 gm by WWII, 37 gm by 1977, 55 gm by ’94 to todays level of about 70 gm per day.  It is the one constant in our diets where we have seen large per-capita increases. Meanwhile, our share of “good” foods such as complex carbohydrates and fiber has gone down. (Average fiber consumption is only 15 gm per day down significantly over the last few decades and way down from an estimated 100-300 gm per day during early man’s existence. This is a fact that never ceases to amaze me.)

What is even more damning for sugar is that it  is actually “toxic” to the body. Though lengthy and a bit preachy at times, I recommend to all the 90 minute video of a lecture by Dr. Lustig called “Sugar The Bitter Truth” which is easily found on YouTube. Dr. Lustig very convincingly links sugar to many other problems that go beyond obesity such as diabetes, gout, hypertension, high glycerine/HDL ratios (which he notes is the best predictor of heart disease not just LDL), high amounts of LDL,  among many other problems. He does this in the biochemistry part of the talk which though a bit complicated does make you realize that the body takes in complex carbohydrates and fiber with only positive effects. However, fructose or sucrose cause eight very negative things to happen to the body.  ( I wasn’t exactly pleased that these same negative effects occur with alcohol consumption as he shows in his lecture, but after all it is a fermented sugar. ) Separate research (see 60 Minutes Story on Sugar) has also strongly tied sugar consumption to a number of cancers as well.

In addition, sugar has an “addictive’ quality to it, which rivals cocaine! (See 60 Minutes story). This makes it particularly insidious in that it is very hard to eat it in moderation. This is also no surprise to parents of small children or to adults who have sat down with a box of chocolate chip cookies after a rough day and tried to eat just one. 

What should we do? As individuals cutting out all soft drinks, fruit drinks, and even fruit juices is clearly a ‘must’ as well as most desserts or snacks. (In my case, it means not even having them available in my house. ). It is particularly important to limit those juice boxes for infants and young children and replace them milk, water or with real fruit.  (Note that though real fruit has fructose it comes with nature’s “antidote”- fiber- as Dr. Lustig explains. In fact, it takes about 6 oranges to equal a 12 oz orange juice. And I can’t remember the last time I ate 6 oranges!) Even just one of these sugared drinks gives you all the sugar your body can handle. Similarly, alcohol consumption should be limited (but you already knew that :) ). However, you also should watch out for added sugars in refined products you eat which can quickly add up. (As examples, almost all bread, tortillas and breakfast cereals have added sugars. But some, such as Cheerios, Shredded Wheat, fresh-baked sour dough and french breads , and corn tortillas have NO added sugar).

At the public policy level, I believe we should also “tax” sugar consumption. This is not just because sugar is empty calories, but because it is a toxin just like ethanol. And we after all, regulate alcohol and cigarettes and tax them heavily. Why not sugar too? I find the evidence (including the above noted videos) as pretty compelling regarding these toxic effects, much more so than other activities that we have banned or heavily regulated such as air pollution which I am also all too familiar with on the science side.

I think the rationale for taxing sugar is compelling. First, taxing sugar will help reduce consumption, which is a positive given its documented  very negative health consequences. Second, revenues from taxing sugar can be used to help pay for our increasing Medicaid and Medicare costs in the future as rates of diabetes, heart disease and other long-term illnesses likely continue to increase at least for some time. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the tax on sugar can be part of the messaging of the “war on sugar”, which would need to accompany it and hopefully greatly reduce its consumption over time.

The size of the tax is a little more difficult to determine. My simple math suggests there are approximately 8 trillion grams of sugar consumed in the US. each year (320 MM x 70 gm per day x 365 days per year) and a mere 3 cents a gram would yield about $240 billion per year.  Three cents a gram would add about $1 to the cost of a 12 oz. sugared soda or fruit drink which would be enough to start affecting consumption significantly. Such a tax would need to be phased in gradually so not to be too much of a shock to consumers or the economy at least initially.

Normally, I am a seldom an advocate for selective government taxes for public policy purposes (i.e. to penalize or subsidize one industry vs. another), but in this case, there is a clear “market failure” (as economists like to call it). We have a product “sugar” which is clearly bad for us but difficult to eat in moderation and even arguably addictive. We have huge long-term health problems that sugar is already helping to cause, which we all pay for whether we personally end up with these problems or not, thru insurance or thru Medicare and Medicaid. This simply cries out for a strong economic disincentive at least to no longer to consume as much sugar.

Sorry folks, but it’s No Sugar Tonight!

11 Comments
  1. Dale Heydlauff permalink

    O.K. Sign me up. As I’ve mentioned in early comments, I strongly favor tax policy that drives desired behavior – providing monetary disincentives and incentives. A tax on sugary products is fine with me. As a member of our Wellness Executive Steering Committee, I’ve been arguing for two years that we should charge more for high fat and high sugar foods than healthy fare. I would love to see a regular coke cost more than a diet coke, with water being cheapest, in our vending machines. I believe consumers will alter behaviors if given the right pricing signals. Perhaps the government would raise enough to offset capital gains and income taxes???

    • Martin Gitlin permalink

      Why do you even charge for water? What happened to the drinking fountain?

    • If we make the sugar tax meaningful as my post suggests, we would raise a lot of money which could replace other taxes that you suggest. I believe we should make the price of a coke, orange drink, chocolate cake etc. significantly more expensive so it will significantly reduce consumption and that is the most important aspect of the tax in my view.

  2. Kris McKinney permalink

    Does this mean I shouldn’t put honey on my Cheerios anymore?

    • Call me first:) . Of course, the real answer is everything in moderation. A little sugar is clearly ok. The problem is when the 70 gm a day becomes the norm , rather than 30 gm or less which is much safer according to the doctors/ scientists.

  3. Jeff permalink

    Someone from Domino Sugar just called asking which house was yours. I gave them Walt’s address :)

    • Too bad you didn’t talk to the guy in the Coke truck who tried to run me down. :)

  4. Molly Holt permalink

    Love this! I wish folks would take it seriously instead of deriding the “nanny state.”

    • This is clearly a case where the market has failed. This is in large part because the lion’s share of our health care is paid for by the government ( e.g Medicare and Medicaid) and such a system doesn’t distinguish between those that engage in risky health behaviors (e.g eating lots of sugar) and those that do not . As you know, I generally don’t like meddling in markets, but this is a case where a tax is the best way to go.

  5. Martin Gitlin permalink

    Thanks, Bruce, for this timely information. My only comment is that it does not go far enough. It is not just the sugar we take in as sugar (i.e. soda, juices, candy and other desserts) that hurts us but also (a) the sugar that is introduced into processed foods that we don’t know about unless we read the labels and understand all of the names for sugar (i.e. corn syrup, dextrose, maltodextrin,etc.) and (b) all of the things that our bodies readily turn into sugar (bread, pasta, rice, oats, wheat, potatoes, bananas, beets, quinoa, milk, yogurt – even the “magical” Greek yogurt – and non full-fat cheese). If the body needs to dump high levels of insulin into the bloodstream to deal with a food (and if you get an immediate headrush and then, 30 minutes later, a food coma), then its probably not helping. The expression “complex carbohydrates” is a bit misleading, since eating whole wheat bread and white bread or brown rice and white rice have similar insulin consequences (at least according to some of the biochemists I’ve read and spoken with on the topic). What is a complex carb? I don’t know for sure, but I would include most vegetables with a low glycemic index but exclude grains and high glycemic vegetables.

    Since January 29th, I’ve been mostly sticking to a paleo/primal style of eating. This means vegetables and meat (including eggs and grass-fed beef and lamb), some fruits (mostly lower glycemic berries and melons), some nuts and seeds, little starch, no sugar.

    Results? With some moderate exercise (2-3 times per week, mostly body weight exercises), I’ve lost over 25 lbs and continue to lose (albeit more slowly than initially). More importantly, though, I don’t have the peaks and valleys in energy levels that have plagued me for decades. No more fighting to stay awake during that boring mid-afternoon meeting or conference call (although sometimes I wish I were asleep…), and, most importantly, a higher level of alertness and a clearer mind.

    This plan is simple, but not necessarily easy, especially for those of us who travel frequently on business, but for me, the results have been worth it.

  6. Marty, this is great to hear! Anne and I eat mostly vegetables, grains and lean protein along with some carbs these days. It has certainly helped me shed some pounds and feel a lot better. I agree that sugar is pretty ubiquitous in refined and canned foods, hence my suggestion to tax ALL foods based on their sugar content except for fresh produce. You are right that sugar is not the only villain, but it certainly is the #1 food villain from what I have read. Fats in excess are bad too of course and even too many carbohydrates/ calories will contribute to obesity and other problems. However, sugar ( and alcohol) are the ONLY foods that have very negative effects regardless of how much you consume. This was the eye opening part of the 90 minute lecture that I referenced in the blog. His discussion of the biochemistry of digestion of carbohydrate vs ethanol and sugar certainly impressed me of sugar’s dangers.

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