Sugar Overload: 

Stopping the Next Public Health Crisis

     Sugar is the ultimate comfort food. We celebrate with it in our cake and when we are sick, we spoon out cough syrup with enough sugar to make it one of the top ingredients. Tom Zoellner says in his book tracing sugar’s history that “No correlation exists between sugar and nutritional benefit. Its presence in food assures the tongue that energy and protein reside within, but sweet foods deliver a benign-tasting venom.” It has been quite a few decades since we started studying the ill-effects of sugar, and while there aren’t as many studies on highly-processed sugar, we understand that in large amounts it is harmful to the human body. Knowing what we know now, society should focus on decreasing its sugar consumption. If you inspect labels, you might notice that sugar is showing up in products you never expected to find it in. Though we are in general agreement that it’s harmful, the stuff seems to be in everything these days. Sugar should be regulated to industry standards that are far lower than what they are at present.

     There is enough evidence to suggest that sugar is causing a public health crisis. Most people think cutting out sugar is as easy as skipping dessert; however, high fructose corn syrup is finding its way into products we might not even expect. A World Health Organization report states, “The fact that sugar is a relatively cheap and abundant ingredient is not a direct incentive to use it, but means there is little incentive from the supply side not to use it” (Michai). More sugar products in our diet will ultimately lead to poorer health outcomes. When someone starts monitoring their intake of sugar, they will soon find out most food options are barred to them. This is because corn syrup is a cheap, government subsidized commodity. If it was only inexpensive, there would be no issue, but sugar consumption creates a whole host of problems.

     Kidney damage is one of the possible long-term effects of sugar consumption. One study proves they “have found an association between sugar-sweetened sodas and albuminuria, which is a marker of early kidney damage” (Bray). If you think that not being overweight can protect you from kidney stones, gout, or kidney disease, think again. Recent reports show that these maladies are directly correlated to high fructose corn syrup, (Lutsey) and while obesity is a factor that can exacerbate kidney disease, even without BMI factored into testing, high fructose corn syrup still increased the chances for harm (Shoham).

     The issue that exacerbates every other is the addictive quality of sugar. More sugar in our foods creates cravings in the products that contain it. There is little doubt about the addictive nature of sugar. High fructose corn syrup, a processed sugar product made of corn, is possibly more addictive. Tests show that ingesting fructose releases dopamine in the brain, not unlike other more-addictive substances. While it is not proven that it functions to create the same dependency as a drug like cocaine, the act of reward-seeking can create a habit all the same (Asgari-Tace). One experiment even showed that “intake of a caloric sweetener can impact behavioural and neurochemical responses that are relevant to opioid addiction” (Minhas). While suggesting high fructose corn syrup leads people to become heroin addicts is a strong argument for regulating sugar consumption, there are simply far too many factors to consider when discussing addiction. If you combine the risk of overdevelopment of dopamine production, combined with all the other ill-health effects, it seems clearer we need to do something to curb sugar addiction.

     The overconsumption of sugar isn’t always obvious when we find it in foods that aren’t classically considered sweet. Added sugars in processed foods count for a whopping ninety percent of the sugar we consume in the US (Martinez Steele). Sugar additives keep us addicted to junk food. The sugar we don’t know we are eating could contribute to diabetes and we might not even realize it, since sugar shows up in foods we don’t expect to normally find it.

Cutting 20% of sugar from packaged foods and 40% from beverages could prevent 2.48 million cardiovascular disease events (such as strokes, heart attacks, cardiac arrests), 490,000 cardiovascular deaths, and 750,000 diabetes cases in the U.S. over the lifetime of the adult population, according to micro-simulation study published in Circulation.

(Massachusetts General Hospital)

Reducing sugar in foods could help reduce some diseases, and if somebody is already diabetic, it is very difficult to maintain a safe diet. There should be more options for people whose diets require low-sugar diets.

     Solutions to this issue are far from simple. The American public is often afraid of restricting options in the marketplace. One clear example is the regulation of nicotine smoke, which was also a very contentious debate until public sentiment grew to a point where politicians could enact legislation without losing too much political capital. Unfortunately, due to historically poor messaging, sugar is something most people don’t consider as being so unhealthy that it requires a substantial fix to the problem. Soda taxes are unpopular, and this isn’t that much of a surprise as the burden lands on the consumer and not the supplier, yet soda taxes have been proven to create better health outcomes. Public sentiment usually softens after health benefits become obvious. Another argument is that it restricts freedom. But this argument is a weak one: governments restrict freedom all the time, and there is no constitutional amendment protecting our right to soda choice. Seat belt laws are a good example of a shift in public approval after very loud disapproval from the outset.

     If I were to provide a counterargument to the regulation of sugar, it is that it most often stigmatizes overweight people, who are blamed for rising insurance costs. Obesity becomes a convenient scapegoat, but we should not assume that all overweight people are unhealthy. Conversely, we should not assume all skinny people have no underlying conditions. In fact, “A study conducted in the United States revealed that out of 47% of people diagnosed as “obese” (and therefore ill according to the World Health Organization’s definition of “obesity”), only 4% were actually unhealthy…” (Cotais). While being overweight can certainly exacerbate issues, everyone is still at an increased risk for kidney and heart disease when they eat it. The consumer simply can’t be expected to reverse the ill effects of sugar consumption when they have so little understanding of exactly how much they are consuming regularly. 

     The burden of the cost of health care should be placed upon the market. People who make a profit from creating addiction to unhealthy foods should bear the hidden costs of rising health prices. The government could start by ending the subsidization of sugar. Even when it’s not highly processed, we get a significant amount of our sugar through corn syrup. Since the discovery of ethanol, a corn-derived gasoline additive, the U.S. government has been subsidizing the production of corn. This has created an incentive for farmers to grow the commodity and reap the benefits of corn byproducts. The American public through taxes spends at least four billion dollars every year to pay for sugar production (Schutt).

      The profiteers of sugar should bear the cost. Everyone who reaps a benefit from the overconsumption of sugar should be taxed at a much higher rate. That money could go to help people who have less healthy food, like people who live in rural communities and the inner city. Subsidizing programs that get healthy foods to people in need has been proven to result in lowered blood glucose levels (Dunn). This leads to less liver and kidney disease, and new cases of diabetes. If lower blood glucose levels create such better outcomes, it seems quite reasonable to demand that food manufacturers not only stop adding sugar to products that have no need for it, but to lower the amounts they have already begun to add.

     There will continue to be more studies on what sugar, especially high fructose corn syrup, does to harm the human body. There seems little doubt left that in large doses this product causes some, if not significant, damage. Of course, we should be able to treat ourselves with cake or pie. Sugar will always be part of our lives, but we also have a personal responsibility to watch our diet if we want to maintain our health. This has become increasingly more difficult with hidden sugar in our products. In order to keep the American populace healthy, we should be taxing sugar growers, and forcing processed food manufacturers to lower sugar content. Only then can we assure that our sweet rewards are relegated to just our desserts. 

                                                               Works Cited

Asgari-Taee, Farzaneh, et al. “Association of Sugar Sweetened Beverages Consumption with

Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” European Journal of Nutrition, vol. 58, no. 5, 2019, pp. 1759-1769. ProQuest, https://ezproxy.jccc.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/association-sugar-sweetened-beverages-consumption/docview/2038477009/se-2?accountid=2200, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00394-018-1711-4. 

Bray, George A et al. “Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in 

the epidemic of obesity.” The American journal of clinical nutrition vol. 79,4 (2004): 537-43. doi:10.1093/ajcn/79.4.537

Cottais, Camille, Jeanne Pavard, Marion Sanchez, et al. “Fatphobia, a Pervasive and Socially 

Accepted Discrimination – Grow Think Tank.” Www.growthinktank.org, http://www.growthinktank.org/en/fatphobia

‌Dunn, Sharelette, Dana Olsadt, F Beall, Reed, et al. “A Subsidized Healthy Food Prescription

Program for Adults with Type 2 Diabetes Who Are Experiencing Food Insecurity: Protocol for a Randomized Controlled Trial.” Current Developments in Nutrition, Volume 5, Issue Supplement: 2, June 2021, Page 1272, https://doi.org/10.1093/cdn/nzab057_002

Lutsey, Pamela L et al. “Dietary intake and the development of the metabolic syndrome: the

Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study.” Circulation vol. 117,6 (2008): 754-61. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.107.716159

Martinez Steele, Euridice, et al. “Ultra-Processed Foods and Added Sugars in the US Diet:

Evidence from a Nationally Representative Cross-Sectional Study.” BMJ Open, vol. 6, no. 3, 2016. ProQuest, https://ezproxy.jccc.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/

scholarly-journals/ultra-processed-foods-added-sugars-us-diet/docview/1860823432/se-2, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2015-009892. 

Massachusetts General Hospital. “Reducing sugar in packaged foods can prevent disease in

millions.” ScienceDaily. Volume 27 August 2021. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/08/210827082431.htm>

Michail, Niamh. “Why sugar and why so much? WHO investigates the food industry’s sweet

tooth.” 06-Dec-2017 http://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2017/12/06/

Why-sugar-and-why-so-much-WHO-investigates-the-food-industry-s-sweet-tooth

Minhas, Meenu, L. Cheryl Limebeer, Evan Strom, Linda A. Parker, Francesco Leri, (2021) 

“High fructose corn syrup alters behavioural and neurobiological responses to oxycodone in rats” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, Volume 205, 17318. PubMed, https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.jccc.edu/science/article/pii/S0091305721000885?via%3Dihub ttps://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbb.2021.173189

Schutt, Mary Katherine A., Shannon Monnat. “The Sugar Industry Gets Rich and We Get Sick.”

Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion,

14 Jan. 2021, lernercenter.syr.edu/2021/01/14/ib-43/.

https://lernercenter.syr.edu/2021/01/14/ib-43/

Shoham, David A., et al. “Sugary Soda Consumption and Albuminuria: Results from the

National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999–2004.” PLoS One, vol. 3, no. 10, 2008. ProQuest, https://ezproxy.jccc.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/

scholarly-journals/sugary-soda-consumption-albuminuria-results/docview/1312316531/se-2, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0003431.&nbsp;

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