Not Easy to Declare Independence from Sugar

June 30, 2014 | 4:59 pm
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

Our Center for Science and Democracy has been busy studying sugar, its health impacts, and the ways that the sugar industry tries to undermine the science that shows that sugar is not a sweet deal for American families.

To understand how important sugar was in our lives, and how difficult it is to restrict it in our diets, a number of us tried to take the Fed Up sugar challenge: Eliminate all foods with added sugar from our diets for 10 days.

Sounds pretty easy, right? Until you realize that aside from candy, cookies and cakes, you’ll be forgoing many types of bread and rolls, soups, pastas, yogurts,  juices, condiments, and myriad other food items we routinely pop into our mouths.

I never realized how addicted I was to sugar until I tried the challenge. Giving up chocolate was hard, but I’ve done that before. But eliminating all added sugars? I found myself living on blueberries and unsweetened applesauce. By the third day, I was cranky and started to get killer headaches.

I found my body was so used to added sugar, I could not stick out the 10 days. And I am someone who prides herself on eating a pretty healthy diet!

The sugar industry has played a key role in suppressing the negative health impacts of added sugar. Photo: iStock

The sugar industry has played a key role in suppressing the negative health impacts of added sugar. Photo: iStock

The science says it all

My personal experience demonstrates what the science has already told us. As our report states, sugar has an impact on the parts of the brain associated with reward and craving.  Eating a lot of sugar can produce “addiction-like” behaviors. And the sugar industry has done a great job getting sugar added to thousands of food products, increasing our consumption and likely also helping to create those addictive impulses.

The science also tells us that sugar is bad for our health, with over-consumption linked to diabetes, heart problems, and obesity, the source of many more bad outcomes.

But the federal government has been slow to address these concerns, in part because of successful efforts by the sugar industry to downplay the science and to push back on any attempts by Congress or regulatory agencies to even give consumers better information about sugar, its health impacts, and how much sugar has been added to their food.

The FDA is proposing a nutritional label for foods that gives more accurate information, and UCS has been urging the agency to explicitly include the category “added sugars” on that new label. We’ve successfully urged more than 23,000 UCS members to make their views known to the agency.

But the FDA’s own economists might get in the way of even this modest attempt to better inform consumers. There is a fear that sugar regulation might get caught up in the FDA’s infatuation with an economic concept that tries to quantify how much an addictive product is worth to a consumer.

The fight over “lost pleasure”

The FDA could do to sugar regulation what it’s been doing to tobacco rules. In a regulation on cigarette labeling the FDA issued in 2011, the FDA factored in “lost pleasure” when estimating the costs and benefits of the regulation. Let’s say a pack of cigarettes costs $5. A smoker might be willing to pay $25 for cigarettes if he really needs a hit of nicotine. So economic theory might then consider the real value of those cigarettes to be $25—what a smoker is willing to pay, rather than what a pack costs in the marketplace.

Because the FDA placed such a high value on the “pleasure” of smoking, its estimates reduced the value of the health benefits—lives saved and health improved—by 50 percent.

Stanton Glantz, who has fought tobacco interests for decades, is very concerned about how this economic theory is being applied. “Lost pleasure” is not a new concept in economics, he says. But it makes sense when economists are trying to figure out what a rational consumer would do in the marketplace. But an addicted consumer is not rational. Neither is a minor, who may be tempted to experiment with a lot of addictive products.

So why should we worry about an obscure economic theory? Federal agencies justify their regulations in many cases by demonstrating that the benefits of regulation far outweigh the costs to industry. Industries are good at estimating—and often exaggerating—the monetary costs of a protective rule, while agencies discuss improving public health and saving lives, which are difficult to measure in dollars. How do you monetize the ability of children to play outdoors in unpolluted air? How much is a human life worth? And there’s basic fairness to consider—is it right that while one person or company profits from polluting, different people, workers or consumers, get sick from it?

This “lost pleasure” discount just makes it harder for science-informed regulation to prevail.

A difficult road

As it turns out, the FDA’s regulations on tobacco warning labels were thrown out in court for reasons unrelated to “lost pleasure.” But the FDA’s economists haven’t given up on the concept. Indeed, in a paper published last February in the journal Health Economics, two FDA economists and an economist from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimate that the “lost pleasure” discount could apply not only to tobacco but to other areas such as junk food, alcohol or gambling. While they were not claiming to represent their respective agencies in their paper, recent FDA proposed regulations, vetted by OMB, have applied the “lost pleasure” discount.

Note the inclusion of junk food. Does this make sense to you? Because I’m addicted to a sugar-laden juice, and sugar has demonstrated harmful impacts, labels letting me know how much extra sugar has been added to my juice would in some way make me unhappy as well as healthier. Just knowing about the extra sugar would deprive me of the pleasure of literally feeding my addiction.

Even John Graham, who headed OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs during the Bush Administration, and felt few qualms about undermining public protections for political reasons, thought applying the “lost pleasure” discount this way was unprecedented.

“This makes no sense in terms of science,” Glantz said last week at a meeting in Washington. Economists should not be “the only voice” when agencies are estimating the costs and benefits of regulation, particularly when it comes to products that can be addictive. Behavioral psychologists, pharmacologists, physicians, epidemiologists and biologists among others should weigh in. Protecting our families from harm, whether it comes from cigarettes or sugar-laden yogurt and juice, should not be trumped by invented theories of lost pleasure.

So where does that leave the FDA’s efforts to inform the public about sugar in a meaningful way? If FDA’s economists believe that the “lost pleasure” factor should also apply to sugar consumption, the agency’s job will be much harder. And the chances of getting crucial information about added sugar will be jeopardized.