Does Domino Sugar Want You to Swallow Sugar-coated Science—All for a Good Cause?

September 15, 2014 | 10:41 am
Deborah Bailin
Former contributor

A smoker-friendly tobacco festival to prevent lung cancer. A car rally to reduce air pollution. A mud wrestling contest to improve hygiene. Or, how about a bake sale to solve malnutrition and hunger in America?

That last one is for real. Indeed, you, too, could join Domino Sugar in “baking an impact” to raise funds to increase participation in school breakfast programs.

As I wrote back in May, however, social responsibility initiatives by food companies should be scrutinized carefully. It can be worth applauding when corporations fund good causes, but the same companies supporting these causes in the name of their popular brands also continue to obscure the science linking sugar to health problems like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high triglycerides, and hypertension — together known as “chronic metabolic diseases.” A key element of obscuring the science is undermining policy efforts aimed at limiting added sugar.

Peddling sugar to children and diabetics

Spreading misinformation about sugar among diabetes educators is something we might condemn but expect from the Sugar Association. Trade groups provide many benefits to their member companies, and one of the most important is leverage for influencing policy and public opinion.

Sometimes, member companies hide behind trade associations to protect themselves from negative publicity surrounding an unpopular or controversial position—for example, energy companies calling for action on climate change in the public spotlight while quietly lobbying for fossil fuels through their trade associations.

Artist Kara Walker's "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" at the old Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn, New York. The foam structure was coated in 30 tons of sugar. As a work of "ephemeral art," it was dismantled after only two months, perhaps a comment on the dominance and potential demise of Big Sugar. Photo: Lauren via Flickr.

Artist Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” at the old Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn, New York. The foam structure was coated in 30 tons of sugar. As a work of “ephemeral art,” it was dismantled after only two months, perhaps a comment on the dominance and potential demise of Big Sugar. Photo: Lauren via Flickr.

In the case of sugar, apparently it is easier to hide in plain sight. Like its trade group the Sugar Association, Domino Sugar is out on the front lines cultivating the good graces of diabetics and their advocates, most recently as an official sponsor of the “Kids Zone” at the upcoming Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes.

The irony—like an extra slice of chocolate cake masquerading as melon—is decadent: Most Americans consume far more sugar than experts recommend. Mounting evidence shows a causative relationship between sugar overconsumption and chronic metabolic diseases. Recent research links sugar overconsumption specifically to diabetes. And some experts even argue sugar is toxic enough that it should be controlled like alcohol and tobacco.

A sugar company promoting sugar to kids under the guise of preventing diabetes is about as disingenuous a gesture as a liquor company sponsoring a campus tequila tasting to fight underage drinking.

Undermining science-based policy

But what does pushing sugar to diabetics, as despicable as that may be, have to do with the “baking an impact” campaign?  If eating breakfast improves school performance and the occasional cookie is okay even for diabetics, why call out the Domino “baking an impact” campaign? The answer takes us back to trade associations and their efforts behind the scenes to influence policy.

Federal policy determines school menus, and it is no accident that breakfast at schools Domino holds up as model beneficiaries of “baking an impact” includes many options high in added sugar. Along with bagels, Rice Chex cereal, and Corn Flakes, children can choose Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal (10 grams of sugar per serving), Frudel (11 grams), Nutri-Grain bars (12 grams), and BeneFit bars (13 grams). A kid could easily surpass six teaspoons of sugar with just two of these items, without even touching the juice or baked goods. That amount exceeds the American Heart Association’s recommendations that a pre-teen consuming 1600-1800 calories daily ingest a maximum of just 3-5 teaspoons of sugar per day.

Why do kids have access to so many sugary items at school? As our report documents, sugar interests—including the Sugar Association—were instrumental in shaping the USDA’s recent rule implementing the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.

The agency considered regulating sugar in foods sold in schools as 35 percent of total calories and as 35 percent of total weight. Put in context, a Nutri-Grain bar has 120 calories and weighs 37 grams. With 40 percent of its calories from sugar, it would exceed the proposed caloric limit. But with only 32 percent of its weight in sugar, schools could include it on their menus.

Public health experts including the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and Institute of Medicine agreed that the caloric limit was a more appropriate policy based on scientific evidence and was consistent with the USDA’s Official Dietary Guidelines. They provided 70 comments in support of a caloric limit during the public comment period preceding finalization of the rule.

By contrast, the sugar-by-weight option, which was adopted in the interim final rule, received support from 1,165 commenters—including trade associations and food manufacturers—arguing it was consistent with current measurement methods, would be easier to implement, and would allow for the sale of more products.

The Sugar Association weighed in with explicit misinformation, writing, “reports continue to conclude that sugar intake is not a causative factor in any disease, including obesity.”

Holding sugar interests accountable

Ah, the wholesome glories of the bake sale! Photo: Sara Mohazzebi via Flickr.

Ah, the wholesome glories of the bake sale! Photo: Sara Mohazzebi/Flickr.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t object to bake sales or sugar per se. My inner eight-year-old may not recollect what charitable cause she was supporting, but she does fondly remember (with three-days’ lunch money in her pocket) the gymnasium one day transforming into a glorious emporium of cookies and cakes and pies—oh my!

But if Domino expects the public to take its gestures of goodwill seriously, the company should distance itself from allies that spread misinformation, not mimic or endorse them. And it should openly own up to the science on sugar, not just its seductive sweetness.