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Fight over sweeteners is about profit, not health issues | Timi Gustafson, R.D.
A group of food companies has filed a lawsuit against the Sugar Association, a trade group representing the sugar industry, for making false claims in advertising that allegedly caused loss of profit and other damages. Their action comes on the heels of an earlier complaint issued by the sugar industry against makers and users of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) for saying that their product was essentially identical to sugar and should be marketed as such. Last year, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) had asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change the name HFCS to “corn sugar,” a request that was ultimately rejected.
HFCS is derived from corn and is cheaper to produce than natural sugar made from sugarbeets and sugarcane. Both are present in countless foods and beverages Americans consume every day, and some experts believe there is a strong connection between these sweeteners and the current obesity crisis. In fact, studies have linked the consumption of large amounts of added sweeteners to widespread illnesses, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and dental problems. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends an upper limit of 100 calories for women (about 6 teaspoons) and 150 calories for men (about 9 teaspoons) from added sugar per day.
That high sugar consumption, whatever the source may be, can be detrimental to people’s health is not disputed, not even by the respective industries. In a public statement referring to the lawsuit, the CRA says that “vilifying one kind of added sugar [in this case, HFCS] will not reduce American’s waistlines. Reducing all added sugars and reducing calorie intake in general will.” The real issue is, the statement continues, that “Americans should reduce their consumption of all added sugars and calories in general.”
Considering that sweeteners in all forms are added to so many food products, including those that don’t necessarily taste sweet, it is hard to see how consumers could control their intake on their own. The question is not whether sweeteners are “nutritionally equivalent” and “indistinguishable once they are absorbed in the blood stream,” as the CRA statement claims, but how consumers can be protected from potential harm to their health and be helped to make better choices.
Whether it’s HFCS or added sugar, the fact that they are almost ubiquitous ingredients in our highly processed food and drink supply leaves consumers without much chance to improve their diet. And besides, are we really to believe that food manufacturers whose profitability depends on ever-increasing sales are serious about encouraging the public to buy fewer of their products? If that was the case, why do they keep spending billions of dollars in advertising, including to children?
What’s at stake here is consumer spending – not health concerns. The damages that are being claimed are price erosion and lost profits – not damages done to people’s nutritional and physical well-being from products that may be associated with some of the most widespread health problems we are confronted with today.
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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.