That was the question 12 of us pondered for three hours. We were from the public health, medical, research, academic, advertising and philanthropic communities and had come together to brainstorm.
Each of us was convinced by the accumulating science that sugar was bad, really bad. A change in our thinking had occurred. The old paradigm was that sugar could be bad if you didn't burn off the excess calories. You would become fat, and being fat would make you prone to a host of medical illnesses like diabetes, and heart disease.
We now know that consumption of sugar can kill by causing heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer. Sugar has also been implicated in fatty liver disease, obesity and dementia. You don't need to get fat to be adversely impacted. Forty per cent of normal weight individuals are metabolically abnormal and at risk. Sugar can kill without us being forewarned by the accumulation of fat around our waistlines.
This is a major paradigm change, in essence, a scientific revolution. I spent thirty years working as a cardiologist without ever once wondering what impact sugar had on the heart. I wasn't alone in that.
How do we prevent the future deluge of chronic diseases? What are the best strategies for lowering sugar consumption? What models are there to learn from?
Our group came up with an impressive list of strategies to reduce sugar consumption. We considered policy changes, like soda taxes, to increase the cost of sugar and sugary products. We discussed strategies to decrease the sugar content in foods and beverages as well as strategies to decrease the availability of sugary products. We spoke about the importance of restricting the marketing of sugary foods and beverages.
We also focused attention on how research and public education can play an important role in decreasing sugar consumption by demonizing sugar and sugary products as well as the industries that market and advertise them. The ultimate goal being to change our norms around sugar intake, in much the same way, as we have changed our norms about tobacco.
While I wholeheartedly support the comprehensive list of strategies our group came up with to decrease sugar consumption, I also began to wonder if we were taking too timid an approach. Is it really a viable strategy to get the major food and beverage manufacturers, transnational conglomerates all, to decrease the amount of sugar in their beverages, soups, sauces, cereals, baked goods, and the almost endless supply of food and food-like material that comes packaged in one form or another at our grocery stores?
These packaged foods and beverages, the result of decades of research and experimentation by the food giants, have encouraged us to swap convenience for nutrition. Everyday I drive by the United Stated Department of Agriculture Laboratory in Albany, California. The lab's main claim to fame is that the research leading to the TV dinner was done there, a major part of the packaged convenient food revolution.
What if we made a wrong turn in the 1950s and 60s and got on the wrong path? Few of us knew much about nutrition and most of us were enamored with the culture of time saving conveniences. How exactly you save time and where you bank it was never explained. What if the most nutritious and smartest path for us and for the environment is to eat real food and to forego as much of the packaged stuff as possible?
Instead of pressuring, regulating, encouraging, shaming and cajoling the food and beverage giants to make their offerings healthier and then spending money and wasting valuable time and energy to make sure they comply with regulations they hate and then spending more money and wasting more valuable time and energy in the inevitable law suits once they don't comply, wouldn't it be better to just make an end run around them? Think cell phones in the developing world: no need to string copper wire for landlines.
What if we all went back to eating real food and drinking tap water, spa water, milk, coffee and tea? What if we ate seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, bulk whole grains, dairy, eggs, fish, poultry and meat instead of packaged foods and food like material of all types whenever possible? What if we demanded that it all be farmed sustainably and in accordance with the laws of nature? You know, where cows eat grass, not corn, etc. One consequence would be in shifting our food dollar from transnational conglomerates to local farmers doing their best to farm sustainably. Our local farmers are stewards of the land.
Our advice could be simple: "Eat real food. If they advertise it, don't buy it." The explanation simple as well: "they advertise food and beverages because they want you to eat and drink products that are unhealthy."
The solution we seek requires a radical restructuring of our entire food system. The central mission of our food system must be the provision of nutritious affordable food for all, not the profits of a few transnational conglomerates. We need to prioritize the welfare of our local farmers. We need to create a system, which produces human health, healthy environments, healthy economies and healthy communities. I'm not sure we can get there by partnering with Big Food and Big Soda.
Follow Jeff Ritterman, MD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@JeffRitterman