The Fed Owes Us an Apology For Sugar

My mother went to Woodstock and my father started a tofu company. It’s safe to say they trusted rumors they heard in the cramped aisles of the natural grocery in town more than the federal government. They saw corruption and conspiracy everywhere they looked in mainstream America. As you might expect, hippies living in the woods got some things wrong. They did not vaccinate me because of the usual conspiracy theories and I had to correct that mistake as an adult.

My parents also believe that the federal government’s official diet recommendations were making people sick and that the sugar industry and the government cared more for profits than public health. Tragically for millions of Americans, on diet my  parents’ conspiracy theories were true.  

JAMA Internal Medicine reported last month how the sugar industry paid influential Harvard Diet Researchers $50,000 each in 1967. The New York Times headline says “How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat” but what they really did, was shift the American diet toward sugar. Ever since, this corrupt research has influenced US food policy. In elementary school, I was taught bad diet advice advocating a high carb diet based on the USDA food pyramid. According to the Economist, the USDA gave $171.5 million in subsidies to the sugar industry in 2013 alone. In the 2016 Presidential Campaign season US Senator Marco Rubio stood by his strong support of sugar subsidies.

A walk through my local Brooklyn grocery store today also still reflects the corrupt 1967 studies. Down the condiments aisle I spot two squeezable tubes of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, one is real and the other is “light.” And guess what extra ingredient the light mayo has? Sugar. Any packaged food that advertises “low fat” was reformulated to remove the fat. In almost every case, that meant more added sugar or a greater percentage of calories from sugars. And you didn’t even have to add sugar increase the percentage of calories from sugars. In the dairy section of my grocery store there is more 0% milk than whole milk. Taking out the fat in milk means people are drinking more sugar by volume because that’s what’s left in 0% milk after they take out the fat. Shoppers understand they should use restraint enjoying sweets and deserts. Many don’t understand 0% milk, light mayo and other reduced fat products are the same to their bodies as candy bars.

It turns out corruption makes a lot of people sick. According to the CDC one in four Americans die of heart disease. Diabetes, poor diet and obesity are top heart disease risk factors. Excess sugar is the leading culprit for all those conditions. For many years, official USDA policy was to scare people away from fat and toward sugar.

With the government’s complicity, America’s food industry made sugar the most popular additive in foods they marketed as healthier alternatives. As a result, a generation of dieters made their health worse. When I was in high school I knew a girl who struggled with her weight and got teased and bullied about her body. One day we were sitting near each other at lunch and she said something watching her weight. She was eating some kind of pre-packaged no-fat lunch they sell in grocery stores. She explained “It’s low fat. I’m only eating things that say low fat on the package.” She continued to gain weight through graduation when we lost touch.

The government is complicit in this public health disaster as the sugar industry because there was no firewall. One of the Harvard scientists paid off by sugar largesse 1967 was D. Mark Hegsted, who was later appointed head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture where he drafted diet recommendations helpful to sugar. 

It’s time for the United States to reckon with this history and restore trust with accountability and an apology. They must explain how they will change to ensure public health recommendations are sound. I’d start with three promises. First, anyone who profits from the food industry shall have no voice in public health. Second, stop the hundreds of millions in federal subsidies going to sugar and high fructose corn syrup.  Finally, require packaged foods and beverages post the percentage of their product’s calories from sugar on the front of the package. Many breakfast cereals marketed to kids are over 50 percent sugar and need warning labels.

The best diet advice in America shouldn’t have been coming from my parents and other hippies living at the margins of society. Without trust in public health, anti-vaccination crusades gain traction that’s hard to understand without the history of government’s malfeasance on food. Looking forward to outbreaks of Zika, Ebola and other diseases, Americans need to know they can trust the latest health updates and recommendations. Trust will be hard to build when whole aisles of grocery stores are making people sick with sugar-laden products marketed as health foods while government looks the other way.

Hansa BergwallComment