Nobody likes to admit that they've made a mistake. It's a bitter pill to swallow when you realize a decision that you've made caused you to head down the wrong path. It's always so easy to just ignore the mistake and keep moving in the same direction. After all, you're still moving, right? You may not know where you're heading, but it beats going backwards.
The problem is that the direction in front of you may very well be taking you further and further away from where you want to be. It takes courage to backtrack and change course to get yourself going in the right direction.
Now imagine if there were a lot of people following your lead... A LOT more people...
If you look at American sugar consumption over the past 185 years, you'll see a crazy trend.
Per person, we eat over 5 times more sugar, in all its forms, than our counterparts in the 1820s.
That might be enough to make you want to skip dessert tonight. But the reality is that sweets aren't the main culprit. Sugar is being added to everything: ketchup, breads, yogurt, cereal, and even beef jerky!
It comes down to marketing; the food companies want to make food that tastes better than their competition and there's no easier way to make food taste better than to add sugar! The problem comes when you begin to realize that your taste buds can become desensitized to sugar; the more sugar you eat, the more sugar you need in order to achieve the same level of sweetness.
And that's how we end up with a graph that looks like the one above...
Sugar exists naturally in a lot of foods and in naturally-occurring doses, it wouldn't be a big deal. But in the battle to win the taste buds of the American consumers, food companies have added ridiculous amounts of sugar to products. A typical 12-ounce can of soda could have as much as 11 teaspoons of sugar! Consider that some organizations recommend that a typical adult male should limit their added sugar intake to 9 teaspoons per day and you start to see there is a huge problem.
Consuming too much sugar has been linked to diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and scientists have begun to study whether it is linked to illnesses like cancer and Alzheimer's disease. In spite of that, it's undeniable that eating a bunch of extra sugar just isn't intuitively good! Cavities, weight gain, sugar crashes...
I have a lot of friends in the fitness industry and this is usually where they tell me that it's up to us as individuals to monitor and take responsibility for what we eat. Under normal situations, I agree with that completely. But the reality is that non-fitness professionals are finding it exceedingly difficult to do this. Food manufacturers add sugar to about 74% of the processed foods you find in the supermarket.1
Aren't they supposed to identify the ingredients on their label?
Sure, but the manufacturers use as many as 61 different "names" for sugar that they're adding to products: Barley malt, Cane juice crystals, Corn sweetener, Dehydrated cane juice, Dextrin, Evaporated cane juice, HFCS (High-Fructose Corn Syrup), Maltodextrin, Mannose, Panocha, Refiner's syrup, Sweet Sorghum, and Treacle are just a few.
No wonder people don't always realize what they're eating...
On top of that, most people don't recognize the link between excess sugar and poor health. I have had conversations with individuals who do not realize that one of the main reasons they may be unhealthy is that they are eating excessive amounts of sugar. Part of the reason for this is, just like Big Tobacco has done in the past, the sugar industry and food manufacturers publish "independent research" that is misleading to the average person.
There's so much mis-information making the rounds that a group of scientists from University of California, San Francisco; Emory University; and University of California, Davis have created a new website, SugarScience.org, with the goal of sharing the latest research on sugar and its impact on health in a transparent manner.
Here in America, health care costs are rocketing upwards.
According to Forbes, in 2012, health care costs were at $3 trillion; last year, they surpassed $3.2 trillion.
In 2013, CreditSuisse published a document evaluating global sugar consumption.
They estimated that excess sugar consumption accounts for 30% of our US healthcare costs, or about $1 trillion, as a result of afflictions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
$1 trillion because we consume too much sugar...
But many of my fitness friends would probably insist that it doesn't affect them because they make good choices. They'd be right that they're not visiting the doctor, but we're all affected by this.
How much are you paying in health care insurance? Many companies are finding it hard to subsidize the huge health care expenses so they're passing along the cost to their employees. We're getting pushed into high-deductible health insurance programs, where we are responsible for a larger portion of the health care bill.
Will Medicare/Medicaid be around when you need it? With health care costs rising out of control, these programs are going to run dry unless there are serious reforms.
The reality is that as health care costs continue to rise, one way or another, we're all forced to pay some share of the costs. But what if we can take actions now that will save us $1 trillion annually?
So how do we move forward? There isn't one simple solution. We've been heading in this direction for a long time and it's not going to be easy to change course. So what can we do?
- Annual US sugar consumption (based on 156 pounds annually per person and 350 million people in the US) is about 27 million tons. A tax of 50¢ per pound of sugar purchased (in all its forms) across-the-board will generate about $27 billion. This should be used to offset rising health care costs.
- Companies shall be required to identify how much sugar (in all its forms) has been added to each food product. [Last year, the FDA issued a proposal to do this. As expected, many food companies are arguing that it will "confuse consumers". To date, there has been no word whether the proposal will move forward.]
- Companies that add sugar greater than 5% of the serving size (by mass or volume) will be subject to an added sugar penalty per gram of added sugar above the threshold. (Naturally occurring sugar, as in fruits, or zero-calorie sweeteners would be exempt from the penalty.) This will move companies away from adding sugar at will.
- No food product having more than 5% of the serving size in added sugar can use the words "organic", "healthy", "natural", or the like. This is a gross misrepresentation and only contributes to the problem.
- Candy manufacturers will be exempt from the penalty as long as their products are clearly labelled as candy. The plan isn't to eliminate all sugar; it's to keep companies from adding sugar indiscriminately to all foods and not clearly labelling that they've done so.
I'm proposing these measures to kickstart the conversation; it's one thing to just complain, but it's another to propose solutions. If we stand pat, the problem will only continue to get worse. And the sugar industry has lobbyists and researchers that continue to obfuscate and draw attention elsewhere.
I keep hearing that change can't happen. That the world is what it is. But the truth is that the world is what we allow it to be...
We have to be the change we want to see in the world. We can't leave it to someone else to do it for us. Unsteady State is about carving a path and leading even though it's easier to sit back and follow.
Join the conversation! If this resonates with you, share it and use #unsteadystate!
1 Ng, S.W., Slining, M.M., & Popkin, B.M. (2012). Use of caloric and noncaloric sweeteners in US consumer packaged foods, 2005-2009. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,112(11), 1828-1834.e1821-1826.