WASHINGTON – Our mothers told us: Sugar is filled with “empty calories,” and it can rot your teeth, make you fat and give you diabetes.
They told us this because, unfortunately, it’s true. But this is Washington, and things operate here much like in Willy Wonka’s world of “Pure Imagination,” where fantasies become real simply by wishing them:
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There’s nothing to it
In that same can-do spirit of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” The Sugar Association industry lobby has stepped up its campaign to convince Americans and their government that sugar is good for us. Or, at least, not bad for us.
Consider the 2015 USDA dietary guidelines now being prepared by the Obama administration. A scientific advisory committee is recommending that Americans hold calories from added sugars to 10 percent of their diets, because: “strong and consistent evidence” shows they are “associated with excess body weight”; “strong evidence shows” they increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes; “moderate evidence” shows sugars are “consistently associated with increased risk of hypertension, stroke and CHD [coronary heart disease]”; and “moderate consistent evidence” links cavities to sugar intake.
Enter the sugar lobby’s Andy Briscoe. The head of The Sugar Association wrote to the advisory committee to say there was no “proof of cause and effect” linking “’added sugars’ intake with serious disease,” nor any “significant scientific agreement” to justify telling the American public sugar is “a causal factor in a serious disease outcome.” Added Briscoe: “There is not a preponderance of scientific evidence for conclusion statements that link ‘added sugars’ intake to serious disease or negative health outcomes or for a recommendation to limit ‘added sugars’ intake to less than 10 percent of energy.”
The old-school approach of denial has a 1960s tobacco-industry feel, but The Sugar Association has been successful so far in derailing restrictions on sugar consumption in past dietary guidance, the last of which came out in 2010.
A report in the journal PLOS Medicine last month, based on internal sugar-industry documents, found that The Sugar Association defeated recommendations that Americans reduce sugar intake to fight cavities. A forthcoming documentary purports to have The Sugar Association documents from the 1970s showing other attempts to play down sugar’s health effects.
A Sugar Association spokeswoman said Briscoe was traveling and unavailable to comment.
I feel the sugar lobby’s toothache. It seems all kinds of dietary villains are getting off the hook these days. Last week came a report in The Washington Post that salt may not be as bad as previously thought. The British Medical Journal reports that saturated fat isn’t really a problem. It’s as if we’ll soon discover, as Woody Allen did in “Sleeper,” that cigarettes are actually good for us.
But sugar gets no such reprieve – and the evidence, alas, keeps getting worse. A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that those who get 25 percent or more of their calories from sugar are more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those who take in less than 10 percent.
So what do you do if your financial health depends on people being unhealthy? In Briscoe’s case, you keep on denying.
“Obesity is a serious concern in America, but sugar is not the culprit,” he wrote in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.
“Sugar has been used safely by our grandmothers and their grandmothers for centuries,” he wrote in the Orlando Sentinel.
“Sugar is not part of the problem,” he told Reuters.
“All-natural sugar is currently being scapegoated for all kinds of health problems, despite the fact that Americans consume less of it now,” he wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“Every major, comprehensive review of the total body of scientific literature continues to exonerate sugars intake as the causative factor in any lifestyle disease,” he told the American Sugar Alliance.
Briscoe argues that the problem is the rise in high-fructose corn syrup. It is worse, though mostly because it provides a cheaper way for manufacturers to sweeten foods – not because it’s significantly more harmful than ordinary sugar.
Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco Medical School, said there is clear evidence that added sugars cause obesity, diabetes, fatty liver disease and tooth decay, and evidence associating sugars with high blood pressure, cancer and dementia. “It’s a done deal and the dietary guidelines committee knows it and they said so. So now the question is what’s the USDA going to do?”
That depends on how susceptible it remains to the sugar lobby’s sweet talk.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.