Maybe it should come with a warning label.

Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Choosing Sides in War on Sugar

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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The people at candy-maker Mars Inc. have something to tell you: Stop eating so much sugar! According to the Wall Street Journal, the manufacturer of M&Ms, Snickers and Twix has thrown its weight behind a U.S. Food and Drug Administration push to include measures of added sugar on food labels. Non-candy food manufacturers such as Campbell Soup Co. are opposed to the change, but Mars figures that people already know their candy bars are full of sugar. From the WSJ story:

“It might appear to be counterintuitive, but if you dig down a bit more, we know candy itself is not a diet,” said Dave Crean, global head of research and development at Mars. “It shouldn’t be consumed too often, and having transparency of how much it should be consumed is actually quite helpful to consumers.”

In a comment letter submitted to the government Thursday, Mars also backed recommendations that people should limit their consumption of added sugars to less than 10 percent of daily energy intake and eat lots of whole grains. The letter also mentions that “enriched grains like white rice can provide a meaningful contribution to the diet,” and goes on and on about the benefits of sugar-free gum in fighting cavities. Did I mention that Mars also makes Uncle Ben’s rice? And Orbit sugar-free gum?

The stands food manufacturers take in the coming Sugar Wars will be determined by what they make. For makers of  sugar-filled treats, the rational response seems to be, “It’s candy, people. Eat too much and you’ll get sick.” Soft-drink companies have been toying with a similar approach, although they can’t embrace it as enthusiastically as Mars has because fizzy, sugary (and fake-sugary) beverages risk losing their status as a global dietary staple. Food manufacturers that sneak sugar into soups, crackers, salad dressings and deli meat are fighting the added-sugar labeling, but will surely find ways to adjust to changing dietary recommendations. The group most adamantly opposed to added-sugar labeling is probably cranberry-juice makers, because cranberries taste terrible without lots of added sugar. Most other juice makers don’t care so much about the added-sugar labeling, but must be at least as worried as the soft-drink makers about the new targeting of dietary sugar.

This new targeting took its clearest form in the recommendations that the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee issued in February. In them, the committee finally abandoned long-held strictures on the consumption of fat and cholesterol and targeted overconsumption of added sugars and refined grains as major health hazards. This shift has been a long time in coming -- I remember science writer Gary Taubes announcing its inevitability in a New York Times Magazine article 13 years ago. It is also, of course, ironic, in that past dietary recommendations helped drive the very public-health debacle that the new ones aim to fix. Here’s Taubes, writing in 2002:

[P]ublic health authorities told us unwittingly, but with the best of intentions, to eat precisely those foods that would make us fat, and we did. We ate more fat-free carbohydrates, which, in turn, made us hungrier and then heavier. … [A] low-fat diet is not by definition a healthy diet. In practice, such a diet cannot help being high in carbohydrates, and that can lead to obesity, and perhaps even heart disease.

One possible takeaway here is that the government should just stop trying to tell us what to eat. It was wrong the last time, so who’s not to say it’s wrong again -- and even if it’s right can’t we just figure out for ourselves what to consume? Still, as a major underwriter of food purchases (through school lunch and food stamp programs, not to mention agricultural subsidies) and medical expenses, the federal government kind of has to have some sort of stance on what’s good to eat and what’s not. Also, I’m pretty sure the new anti-sugar view is correct, so aren’t public-health authorities morally obligated to expunge their earlier errors by pushing the new recommendations?

Ah, but how? The added-sugar labeling seems  a bit superfluous, in that nutrition labels in the U.S. already give the sugar content of a serving of food. The dietary guidelines committee proposed a tax on high-sugar drinks and snacks, which is a nicely Pigovian approach but is full of complications and surely won’t happen anytime soon beyond the very local level.

Just the discussion of the dangers of sugar is already affecting behavior, with consumption of sugary soft drinks on the decline since the late 1990s. Still, I can't resist suggesting another idea, born of my love for breakfast, my low tolerance for sugar in the morning and my paternalistic tendencies. Something like 99.7 percent of the breakfast cereals available in the U.S. contain significant added sugar, which always drives me a little crazy when I visit a supermarket or raid someone’s pantry as a house guest. The worst are the cereals that trumpet their natural, organic, gluten-free, earth-friendly bona fides yet are almost a third sugar (I’m looking at you, Gorilla Munch). I’d love to slap a big label on the front of those: “This is candy, people. Eat too much and you’ll get sick.” Yes, that’s excessively paternalistic. But it might work.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net