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The Not-so-Sweet Politics of Sugar Consumption

Posted March 29, 2013

What do you picture when you think of the food industry in your country? In the United States, for example, the food industry is dominated by various big corporations that produce processed foods and regulate the production of meat, dairy, and agriculture (for a wonderful book on the American food chains, see The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan). In most highly developed countries like the United States, food is a consumer product. The sad truth is that the bottom line for most food industry corporations is profit, rather than delivery of properly nutritious diets (1).

And we, as consumers, have the unfortunate responsibility of educating ourselves and being cognisant of the war being waged against our health at the supermarket. While endless material can be written about any one aspect of the food industry, this post will spotlight one single food: sugar. The sugar industry is becoming known as “Big Sugar” as its various production and marketing tactics come to light (and yes, they mirror those employed by “Big Tobacco”).

I don’t need to tell you that sugar is bad for you. We all know that sugar is linked to serious health conditions that characterise major 21st century causes of death, including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease (2-4). However, the causal role of sugar in the obesity epidemic is still a subject of hot debate today. Part of the trouble is the sugar industry’s major stakeholder role, combined with a lack of high-quality scientific evidence (5): for example, it is difficult to find population “controls” who do not consume sugar, which are needed for a proper examination of sugar’s health effects. The World Health Organisation will soon update its global recommendations for sugar intake, and has commissioned a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of sugar intake on body weight, which was just published open-access two months ago in the British Medical Journal (2). The results of the review suggest that sugar increases body weight through promoting overconsumption of food (2). The addictive sweetness of sugar combined with the general poor quality of direct evidence for sugar’s negative health effects combine to make a marketing dream for sugar companies.

Evidence for the “Big Tobacco”-style marketing tactics used by the sugar industry has recently been uncovered by an American dentist named Christin Couzens. A couple of years ago, Couzens noticed a funny thing while at a dental conference on diabetes and gum disease – sugar was not once mentioned as a cause of either health problem by any of the conference speakers. This incident began her on a journey of research into sugar industry archives. One of the most staggering things Couzens found was documentation of three sugar executives receiving an award called “The Silver Anvil” – for “excellence in the forging of public opinion” (5). In the 1970’s, these men had launched a highly successful campaign to save the public image of sugar when scientific evidence of its ill health effects had begun to emerge – with the eventual end results of the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Associations approving sugar as part of a healthy diet. I’ll save you the full summary: click here to check out the full article published by Couzens along with science writer Gary Taubes.

Clearly, various conflicts of interest stemming back to the sugar industry’s interest in profit have played a role in the current state of things today. It’s crazy that we are still having a scientific debate about the role of sugar in obesity. Recent work published in the British Medical Journal and by proactive health care professionals like Couzens show that our discourse about sugar is still evolving, and may take a positive turn for public health. Keep an eye out for the new forthcoming sugar intake recommendations by the World Health Organisation – what they conclude and how scientists, health care professionals, and most importantly governments respond will be the next key deciding factor on the role in sugar in the public’s health. In the meantime, recognising yourself as a consumer and taking the time to educate yourself about the politics behind the food you eat is the first step toward winning your own battle against big food corporations.

Below are a few related resources that are worth checking out:


Sugar Politics: this is the blog that Cristin Couzens began after her research into sugar industry archives. The title says it all, in terms of description.

Food Politics: a long-running and famous blog by Marion Nestle, an American nutritionist and professor. The blog covers the general politics of food in America.

Newspaper Articles

The CBC: A recent Canadian article series on Cristin Couzens’ research

Time: Another recent article comparing Big Soda to Big Tobacco A brief article summarising a recent report by Harvard researchers estimating that soda may cause of over 180,000 deaths per year, and the response from the American Beverage Association


Sugar: The Bitter Truth: a talk from an American paediatrician, Robert H. Lustig on the negative health effects of sugar – this video has over 3 million views on YouTube.

The CBC (again): A documentary by the CBC on the political history of sugar.Part 1 and Part 2.


1)      Stuckler D, Nestle M. Big Food, Food Systems, and Global Health. PLoS Med 2013; 9(6):e1001242. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001242

2)      Te Morenga L, Mallard S, Mann J. Dietary sugars and body weight: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomised controlled trials and cohort studies. BMJ 2013; 346:e7492 doi:

3)      Liu S, Willett W, Stampfer MJ, Hu FB, Franz M, Sampson L, et al. A prospective study of dietary glycemic load, carbohydrate intake, and risk of coronary heart disease in US women. Am J Clin Nutr 2000; 71(6):1455-61.

4)      Malik VS, Popkin BM, Bray GA, Despres J-P, Willett WC, Hu FB. Sugar-sweetened beverages and risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes: a meta-analysis. Diab Care 2010; 33(11):2477-83.

5)      Willett WC, Ludwig DS. Science souring on sugar. BMJ 2013; 346:e8077. doi:

6)      Taubes G, Kearns Couzens C. Mother Jones [Internet]. San Francisco: Mother Jones; November/December 2012 [cited 2013 March 28]; Available from:

Source: PLOS Public Health Perspectives

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