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The Truth, Unsweetened: Informing Consumers on Sugar Consumption and Obesity

posted on Tue, Oct 4 2016 2:11 pm by Sarah Wetter

Recent findings suggest the sugar industry has paid high prices over decades to downplay the role of sugar in the obesity epidemic. But let’s not sugarcoat the evidence: increasing or decreasing dietary sugar intake corresponds to similar changes in adults’ body weight. Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) yields increased weight gain in both children and adults. Still, “targeted marketing” strategies display SSBs as healthy and trendy, and lead to higher consumption by children, minorities, and low-income populations. Public health agencies and officials must combat longstanding industry-spread misinformation to allow communities to navigate healthfully through the food environment.

In September 2016, researchers revealed that the Sugar Association paid scientists in the 1960s to minimize the link between sugar consumption and negative health impacts, alternatively implicating fats and cholesterol. The public health and ethical repercussions of spreading such misinformation are profound. Law- and policy-makers used these findings, for example, to construct dietary guidelines. Food manufacturers removed fats to adhere to health concerns but added sugars to appeal to the palate.

Strategies to outcompete misleading messages are key to achieving better health outcomes. Throughout the past decade, jurisdictions internationally and domestically have been implementing laws to educate consumers on the negative health impacts related to sugar consumption, yet they continue to face opposition from the sugar and beverage industries.

Warning labels on SSB advertisements as proposed in San Francisco, may prove viable to informing consumers on the association between added sugars and obesity. The law, slated to take effect in July 2016, is pending an appellate court decision on free speech implications alleged by the American Beverage Association. Taxation of SSBs is demonstrating its effectiveness in Berkeley, California. Other localities are taking notice. Philadelphia’s substantial SSB excise tax, set to take effect in 2017, has led to an additional lawsuit brought by the beverage industry. The industry alleges the illegality of imposing an excise tax on a product already subject to a sales tax.

Despite legal delays and challenges these and other measures reflect a major change in our nation’s perspective on sugar.

Identifying the determinants of weight gain and empowering informed consumer decisions are critical public health objectives in the fight against obesity and the creation of social norm change. Sugar- and beverage-industry efforts to intentionally mislead consumers denies them the opportunity to make informed choices regarding individual and communal health. The past decade has shown that misinformation on sugar consumption is losing its stronghold in public perception. However, government officials are well positioned to adopt laws, policies and other strategies to inform consumers, curb sugar consumption, and help slow the rising rates of obesity.

This guest post was prepared by Sarah Wetter, J.D. Candidate 2017, Legal Researcher, Public Health Law and Policy Program, Arizona State University.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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