(Bloomberg) -- Humanity has a love-hate relationship with sugar: It’s a treat reserved for the end of a good meal, a focal point for holidays, even a term of endearment. But sugar is an enemy, too, long disparaged as empty calories that cause tooth decay and weight gain. In recent decades, sugar’s bad image has grown much worse. For many, it’s displaced fat and starch at the top of the list of dietary bogeymen. Public health experts have stepped in with advice that we distinguish between the naturally occurring sugars — what’s found in milk and oranges, for example — and “added” sugars that sweeten soft drinks and other packaged foods. Increasingly, governments are treating sugary sodas like cigarettes and alcohol and taxing them to discourage consumption.

The Situation

With obesity and its attendant health problems — diabetes, heart disease and cancer — on the rise, and added sugar fingered as a major culprit, advocacy groups are working to persuade people to cut back. (Among them are Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charity of Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.) In the U.S., where four in 10 adults are obese, the average person gets more than 13 percent of total calories from added sugar. The World Health Organization recommends a maximum of 10 percent, or about 12 teaspoons a day: the amount in 15 ounces of Coca-Cola. To make the advice stick, more than 30 countries and a handful of U.S. cities have begun to tax sugary beverages, which studies suggest are the biggest problem. Another strategy is to strengthen labeling requirements for packaged foods. Chile, where people take in more calories from sugary drinks than anywhere else in the world, now requires conspicuous front-of-package stop-signs on foods high in sugar (or sodium, saturated fats or calories) and forbids advertising such products to children. In the U.S., products must carry a notice of their added sugar content by 2020.


The Background

Molecule for molecule, added sugars are no less wholesome than natural ones. Whether it’s honey, molasses, refined cane sugar or the sweet stuff in an apple, it’s glucose, fructose or a combination of the two. But natural sugars come in limited amounts as part of a package that contains nutrients and fiber, which slows sugar digestion, giving the liver more time to metabolize it and preventing unhealthful spikes in blood sugar. By contrast, added sugars typically come in abundance, and, in the case of soda, unaccompanied by nutrients. That extra sugar prompts bacteria in the mouth to produce acids that erode tooth enamel. Drinking sugary beverages exacerbates anyone’s tendency to become obese, because people can drink a lot of soda without feeling full. Suspicions that sugar may be habit-forming are supported by evidence that laboratory rats demonstrate the classic addiction symptoms of craving, bingeing and withdrawal. Low-calorie foods and drinks containing artificial sweeteners obviously cut back on calories, but some evidence indicates that they may increase appetite and, because they are so sweet, keep people craving the taste of sugar.

The Argument

The way to prevent added sugar from causing problems, soda companies have argued, is to see that people get plenty of exercise. Physical activity indeed helps keep weight off, but limiting the calories going in, studies show, make a bigger difference. Critics of soda taxes argue that they are a burden on the poor and threaten job loss in the food industry. Mexico’s experience, however, suggests that wealthier people end up paying the taxes, while poorer people cut out sugary drinks. The evidence so far in Mexico and Philadelphia also finds no employment backlash from soda taxes. Overall, the taxes appear to be working. For example, a peso-a-liter soda tax in Mexico imposed four years ago ushered in a 7.6 percent drop in consumption. (This research was funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.) Philadelphians dialed back their urge for a daily soda by 40 percent almost immediately after a 2017 city tax went into effect. In the U.K., a soda tax levied not simply by the liter but according to the amount of sugar per liter has pushed beverage makers to reduce the sugar content in their products. 

The Reference Shelf

  • The book “Soda Politics” by Marion Nestle explains how the soft drink industry wins hearts and minds.
  • The WHO guidelines for sugar intake lay out the case for public-health efforts to limit consumption.
  • A Credit Suisse report looks at how the bad news on added sugar will affect consumers, doctors, manufacturers and investors.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “ Dietary Guidelines for Americans” explains the advice to limit calories from added sugars.
  • An article in The Atlantic by Daniel Engber examines the case against sugar.

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