You can get garden variety health advice from the daily newspaper, the "health" section of most book stores, and of course thousands of web sites. I'm hoping to present thought provoking and maybe change provoking thoughts about individual and community health. This blog is not just what to do about health, but how to think about it. I'm looking forward to an exchange of ideas with readers. July, 2010


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Is Big Sugar on a Downward Spiral?

Many years ago I visited a museum and exhibit maintained by the Coca Cola company in Atlanta; it is still operating and is heavily promoted in the Atlanta area.  This museum is quite large and it takes the visitor through the history of the company, from the early days in the 1800s to the present.  When I was there it was a very happy place, celebrating the success of a great company and the status of Coke as an American cultural icon.  O how the mighty have fallen!  While Coke is still highly respected, it is a fact that the soft drink industry is now in a defensive stance.

Maybe it is me, but it seems that public alarm regarding too much sugar in our food and beverages is becoming like the venerable snowball out of control.  PSAs, media stories, and general scrutiny regarding the hazards of excess sugar, and efforts to limit our sugar consumption in total have become almost as ubiquitous as the political ads during the election season. Recently I came across a new video presentation from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, regarding sugared-beverages.  See what you think about it.  Recently a lot of attention has gone to what New York City is doing to restrict large serving sizes of sugar-rich beverages, and people are waiting to see how successful that effort  becomes.  Even Big Sugar is getting into the act by announcing the coming use of soda machines that provide calorie information.  See the video from ABC news.  By the way, I'm including under the umbrella of "Big Sugar" the soft drink companies and high-sugar candy and junk food makers, because these products are not really food, but delivery devices for sugar, as well as caffeine in the case of many soft drinks.  The population is hooked on sweet.

The adjective "Big" is often used to cast aspersions on the thing it modifies.  The label Big Tobacco doesn't just refer to market share, economic power, or number of employees.  It also whispers that because of the size and clout of those entities, they are up to no good.  Other examples are Big Pharma (e.g. Pfizer, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline), Big Food (e.g. Tyson, Nestle, Kraft), Big Medicine (insurance companies and provider chains) and so forth.  While we are painting with a broad brush, there is no question that many of these powerful firms have pursued their narrow interests against the best interest of the public, especially the most vulnerable.

So what is behind this recent change regarding Big Sugar?  Why are we talking so much about sugar, and specifically sugar-flavored beverages, as opposed to fat or alcohol, or other nutritional issues such as too few fruits and vegetables?  For one thing, it is a fairly simple idea: cut down on sugar and you can decrease obesity and other health problems.  It is a simple media message - the best kind.  It is easy to act on this message, whether you are a consumer or a food and beverage producer.  There are lots of options already available, and consumers have access to more and more data to alert them when a lot of sugar is a key ingredient.

The anti-tobacco campaign is young, really just taking shape.  It remains to be seen if the extended tug of war that public health has had with Big Tobacco over the last 50 years will be replicated as we tackle the health consequences of sugar-laden diets.   We now have a  play book for public health advocacy, but so does Big Sugar.  Stay tuned.

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