07/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Navigating the Business of Sugar

It's easy to seek out scapegoats. Since the time of Judas and probably well before, finding a particular person or industry to fault eases our conscience. Consider the skipping record known as BP Chief Executive Tom Hayward continually remind us that the failed equipment was not his company's in attempts of absolving it of responsibility. This is hardly a rare phenomenon.

Yesterday's business cover story in the New York Times, "For Corn Syrup, The Sweet Talk Gets Harder," is another great example. Briefly, the article discusses the distance between food science and food marketing. For decades high fructose corn syrup has been a mainstay in the American diet, very often unknowingly--a report in the Jan/Feb 2010 Nutrition Action Newsletter, "Sugar Overload," states that Americans ingest an average of 350-475 calories of added sugars per day. For someone like myself, who spent my youth in the '80s slugging cans of Jolt while munching on Twix bars as fuel for long nights of basketball, those numbers were on the low end.

As both the Times and Newsletter articles confirm, the science behind sugar is a bit more complicated than upturning fists at soda companies and breakfast cereal makers for loading products with HFCS. Common table sugar, once ingested in the body, is roughly half fructose and half glucose, the same as the corn syrup. As the Newsletter states, "if there's a villain, it's all sugars." True, fructose, glucose, and sucrose are different molecules, but given their rampage on the human immune system in affluent cultures, we need to look at what sugars in general are doing to us.

I understand HFCS hatred well. Being cheaper to produce than sucrose, table sugar, it was lauded as sacrament by food producers looking to cut costs. I was immediately appalled watching a video of how HFCS is produced a few years ago. Firstly, its abundance resides in the over-subsidizing of corn by the US government. Then there's the actual process: mill corn to produce corn starch, processing the starch to make syrup, adding enzymes to change the glucose left behind into fructose. Unless you're gnawing on sugarcane or sucking a beet, however, most any added sugar you ingest is going to be processed in some such manner.

The sugar industry has rallied against HFCS advocates, taking advantage of the growing public outrage over a substance treated as the devil incarnate. Finding any conversation about diabetes or obesity that does not make HFCS the culprit is challenging. Thus, we have a source of evil to point to, enabling us to engage in a dangerous dietary trend guilt-free: the over-consumption of any sugars.

There should be little surprise that a 2002 Food and Nutrition Board report, issued as part of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, offered a nutrient sample menu plan that recommended up to 35% of daily intake of protein and 25%--one quarter of our daily diet--being "Sugars in Sweets, or Added Sugars." One-third of our diet should be meat, another quarter soda and cake, cobbling together an acceptably healthy diet.

Around the same time, the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization were about to release an international report recommending 10% being the upper limit of daily sugar intake. The US-based Sugar Association caught wind of the report and threatened to lobby Congress to reduce America's $406 million funding of the WHO. The result: a 10% limit for the world outside of America, and a 25% cap inside of this country. And you know the number that food companies have used in marketing campaigns since.

In fact, as Marion Nestle has reported, the Dietary Guidelines no longer feature one of the basic virtues of food science: eat less sugar. That maxim is now restricted to a footnote on the chapter concerning carbohydrates rather than being prominently featured as a basic premise of nutrition. The reason? Lobbying. Look at the confusing jargon. In 1980, the Guidelines stated, "Avoid too much sugar." In 2005: "Choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners, such as amounts suggested by the USDA Food Guide and the DASH [Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension] Eating Plan."


We don't need more complications concerning food and nutrition jargon. We need simplicity. Our bodies do not need bread made with thirty-seven ingredients, many of them fillers and emulsifiers. Four will usually do just fine.

I stopped drinking soda in 1993. The Rutgers dining hall also influenced me to give up meat altogether, but during my freshman stint I felt that soda slowed me down on the basketball and volleyball courts. I decided to give it up for a few months to see if it would change my stamina, and it certainly did--so much so that I never craved it again. The initial burst of energy was not worth the crash, and I felt much more stable, physically and emotionally.

I've gone my rounds with nutrition advice, effectively giving in to the notion that certain sugars are "safer" than others. For a while I only sweetened things like tea with maple syrup, for a while honey, even gave the agave nectar thing a run. Eventually I stopped adding anything, and instead fell in love with the taste of tea, not sugary water. I have tried to inject that habit into most everything I eat, using one general rule: the less processing, the better for my body. Hence, I've been eating more fruits for my sugar source, never beating myself up for the occasional baked good or chocolate bar. I'm not inhuman, just trying to use common sense.

Sugar need not be the devil in the food industry either. There is a good reason our bodies crave it. But when we saturate ourselves with anything, physically or mentally, we become dependent on it--this is why food choices are such an emotional issue. I can't tell you how many disgusted or bemused looks I get when telling people that I'm a vegetarian. They range from "How" or "Why" to "Well I'd never..." Some people will outright attempt to belittle me, claiming the insanity of it.

Sugar is a bit harder to deal with, mostly because it is in most everything we eat, and what's worse, you usually can't see it. Processed sugars are, for the most part, crafted for invisibility. Unless you have a giant slab of iced cake with red and purple speckles, you can't see the sugar. When we gouge our sweet tooth, we can't even sense it. We can taste its absence, though, which leads us to reject "bland" foods with that disgusting adjective from the pre-tofu age, "healthy." Like fiber healthy. Like prune healthy. Like Metamucil healthy.

The sad conclusion to the Times piece? Companies are again using sucrose instead of HFCS due to consumer demand, causing the corn syrup industry millions in losses. That's not actually the sad part, considering that those crafty corn growers have made the money back by injecting its cheap fodder into Mexican foods. I've traveled through many a small Mexican village over the years, with few public utilities and giant Coca-Cola billboards, to know that is not what they (or any) culture needs. Food science be damned where marketing opportunities exist.

We can't rely on the billboards, or fool ourselves into thinking we'll read the small print on the health-promoting commercial. We have to read the sides of the box (another thing the food industry fought viciously to deny) and keep track of what we're putting inside of us. The common sentiment is true today as ever: a nation can only be judged by how it treats its poorest. Given the poor nutrition that invades not only our food markets and restaurants, but also the corporate-sponsored "expert" advice and even down to hospitals and school systems, only we can help cure this sweetly disguised plague.