Humanity has a love-hate relationship with sugar: It’s a treat reserved for the end of a good meal, a focal point for holidays, even a term of endearment. But sugar is an enemy, too, long disparaged as empty calories that cause tooth decay and weight gain. In recent decades, sugar’s bad image has grown much worse. For many, it’s displaced fat and starch at the top of the list of dietary bogeymen. Public health experts have stepped in with advice that we distinguish between the naturally occurring sugars — what’s found in milk and oranges, for example — and “added” sugars that sweeten soft drinks and other packaged foods. Increasingly, governments are treating sugary sodas like cigarettes and alcohol and taxing them to discourage consumption.
With obesity and its attendant health problems — diabetes, heart disease and cancer — on the rise, and added sugar fingered as a major culprit, advocacy groups are working to persuade people to cut back. (Among them are Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charity of Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.) In the U.S., where four in 10 adults are obese, the average person gets more than 13 percent of total calories from added sugar. The World Health Organization recommends a maximum of 10 percent, or about 12 teaspoons a day: the amount in 15 ounces of Coca-Cola. To make the advice stick, more than 30 countries and a handful of U.S. cities have begun to tax sugary beverages, which studies suggest are the biggest problem. Another strategy is to strengthen labeling requirements for packaged foods. Chile, where people take in more calories from sugary drinks than anywhere else in the world, now requires conspicuous front-of-package stop-signs on foods high in sugar (or sodium, saturated fats or calories) and forbids advertising such products to children. In the U.S., products must carry a notice of their added sugar content by 2020.