The War on Sugar
Our own dining halls have become a battleground
What did you eat today? Chances are, it contained sugar. At the time you may have enjoyed the sweet taste, but that sensation quickly turns bitter with new research that has surfaced on the connections between sugar consumption and some of the leading causes of death in the United States, namely heart disease.
A recent report by the United Nations found that non-communicable diseases are causing more deaths worldwide than infectious diseases. The announcement identified tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy diets as the primary risk factors. Even more daunting, the UN found that there are now 30 percent more obese people in the world than those who are undernourished.
Although consumption of tobacco and alcohol has been targeted as detrimental to health, diet had not entered the arena until a contingent of doctors, led by California pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig, began what he deemed a “war on sugar.”
In an attempt to reduce heart disease, a 1970s government commission mandated that United States food producers lower the amount of fat in their products. While well intended, the order generated little significant impact since the food industry replaced the missing fat with sugar. As a result, the average American now consumes 130 pounds of sugar per year, and cases of heart disease, hypertension and diabetes have skyrocketed. Some research has even found links between sugar consumption and cancer.
Dr. Lustig believes the problem boils down to the fact that “sugar is cheap, sugar tastes good and sugar sells, so companies have little incentive to change,” and he suggests instituting regulations to limit the availability of sugar and discourage consumption. Such efforts would include taxes on processed goods, restricting sales during school hours and placing age limits on the purchase of sugary products.
Pomona College nutrition guidance counselor Liz Ryan reaffirmed Dr. Lustig’s calls for a reform in the food industry. “Children are bombarded with commercials from sugar products,” she declared. “I think it is very important to start looking at this. You can’t argue with science, and clearly people are being affected by massive amounts of sugar.”
However, these measures also pose a serious threat to personal freedoms, and such regulations may not sit so well with consumers. Deirdre Lee PO ‘14 is enrolled in “The Political Economy of Food” course at Scripps College and feels that a tax would “infringe too much on personal rights. Also, if you try to regulate consumption with a tax, people will only look at the higher price and make decisions for the wrong reasons.”
Lauren Vazquez PO ‘14, another student taking the course, weighed in on the issue, stating, “I think it would be incredibly difficult to implement a tax, and…there are better and more efficient ways to change the way people eat, like grassroots movements and making companies change the way they sell their foods and have more transparency.”
Both students have found “The Political Economy of Food” to be incredibly valuable; as Vazquez highlighted, “We’ve learned how separated most people are from the food that they eat. There needs to be more questioning of what labels say and we need to learn how to critically analyze the foods we purchase.”
According to Ryan, Pomona College, after separating from food provider Sodexo last January, joined the other Claremont schools in beginning concerted initiatives to improve the quality of food offered to students as well as access to nutritional information. She says that the plan has been to “implement all-around better choices, like more whole-grains, more lean proteins, use ethical and sustainable food sources and to make students aware of what they should be eating everyday.”
This emphasis is aligned with many organic efforts at the Claremont Colleges, such as the organic farm, which Ryan calls, “a wonderful step in the right direction.”
Lee echoed Ryan’s sentiments: “I love the efforts that the farm is making, like the farm stand to give people better eating options. I hope the school gives them more funding to expand because I feel like there is a lot of beneficial potential for what they can do.”
Overall, this is not a simple case of too much of a good thing. Sugar is posing a serious threat to our future health and our consumption practices need to change. In the short term, Ryan suggests that under the impending stress of finals, students should “avoid the late night greasy food. Stick with the whole foods; fruits and nuts are great snacks.”