Sugar-coating Science: How the Food Industry Misleads Consumers on Sugar

May 6, 2014 | 10:17 am
Deborah Bailin
Former contributor

When I was growing up, my parents strictly limited the amount of sugar I was allowed to eat. I remember one day throwing a tantrum in the grocery store—I must have been 4 or 5—because my mother wouldn’t buy me Froot Loops. I shook the box up and down, transfixed by the big, colorful cartoon bird on the front, and wailed, “But I waaaaant it!” She snatched the box, “No way! The first ingredient is SUGAR.”

My mom and dad were unusual in that they were both aware of the science linking sugar to health problems years ago, but they were schoolteachers with a lot of respect for science. My grandparents, on the other hand, unlike my parents, had indulged my mother’s cravings for candy and soda. Her high childhood sugar consumption has caused her lifelong struggles with dental disease, and my parents limited my sugar intake because they didn’t want the same fate for me.

Since my childhood, the evidence has only increased linking sugar not only with tooth decay but obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high triglycerides, and hypertension (together known as “chronic metabolic diseases”). So why is it that so many Americans continue to consume excessive added sugar not only in obviously sweet products like soda and candy but also in bread, yogurt, salad dressing and many other seemingly healthy foods?


This healthy looking meal contains more than an entire day’s worth of sugar according to USDA recommended guidelines for sugar intake.

The Center for Science and Democracy’s new report Sugar-coating Science: How the Food Industry Misleads Consumers on Sugar provides some answers.

Evading science, engineering opinion

The science supporting a relationship between sugar consumption and chronic metabolic diseases has led several scientific and governmental bodies, including the World Health Organization, the American Heart Association, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to recommend sugar intake far below typical American consumption levels.

But sugar interests understand well that there is no such thing as unframed facts, and they spend billions of dollars annually to shape the context of food purchasing and persuade Americans to eat and drink more sugary foods and beverages—and make us feel good about doing so. U.S. ad spending for the 10 major food and beverage manufacturers in 2012 approached $7 billion.


Major food and beverage manufacturers spent close to $7 billion in 2012 on advertising. Many o their megabrands contain excessive added sugar. Source: Advertising Age

Engaging in false advertising

Given the engineered landscape that most Americans enter when they walk through the grocery store’s doors, choosing foods low in sugar is never as easy as it should be.

Some food and beverage companies have engaged in blatantly false advertising. Coca-Cola marketed its “enhanced” line of flavored waters called Vitaminwater as healthy, but the product has sugar content comparable to soda. Coca-Cola is now facing legal action to stop misrepresenting Vitaminwater. Under pressure of a similar lawsuit, General Mills agreed to stop using the phrase “made with real fruit” on its Fruit Roll-Ups “fruit” snacks because the product is mostly sugar, is not made with whole fruit, and has almost no nutritional value.

Eploying front groups

Sugar interests have also made use of front groups—industry funded organizations with consumer-friendly names that obscure their funders’ financial stakes. Recently released internal documents reveal that in 2009 sugar interests paid the public relations (PR) firm Berman and Company to create deceptive ads promoting sugar consumption.

The ads were aimed at consumers concerned about reducing their sugar intake by reducing their intake of high-fructose corn syrup and ran through a front group called the Center for Consumer Freedom to hide industry sponsorship. By running the ads through the front group, this industry PR campaign was made to appear to the public as an independent statement and intended to convince them that eating sugar was “natural” and therefore OK, against the advice of scientific experts.

Targeting vulnerable demographic groups

Sugar interests use marketing to exploit the unique vulnerabilities of demographic groups with greater potential to increase food industry profits. Children, for example, represent a lifetime of sugar consumption. They are also innately attracted to sweet tastes and lack the capacity to recognize persuasive intent, so they’re an easy target—and they influence billions of dollars in adult spending.

lucky charms

“Advergames” are ads disguised as online games and targeted at children.

As my parents knew, scientific understanding of children’s vulnerability goes back decades, as does regulators’ awareness of them as a target of sugar interests. In 1978, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) attempted to restrict television advertising of sugary products to children, but lobbying by food and beverage manufacturers derailed those efforts.

Women and minorities are targeted by sugar interests, too. Gender-based strategies are used to connect with women because women are the primary food decision makers in many families. Minorities with growing populations are targeted because they represent a growing consumer base.

Overcoming the odds

While sugar interests have exploited advertising to misinform the public, advertising can also promote the public good. Successful public service announcements (PSAs) have reduced smoking, increased seatbelt use, and prevented drunk driving. A recent New York City anti-sugar PSA campaign has been adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for a nationwide public health campaign.  New York City’s case may be paving the way for sugar to be the next success story for science-informed public health improvements everywhere.

Additionally, businesses can choose to take a stand for the public good. Last year, Baltimore-based MOM’s Organic Market announced it would stop selling products featuring children’s cartoon characters licensed from TV, books, or films. The chain’s rationale for the move was that marketing to kids—whether for healthy or unhealthy products—at an age when kids are susceptible and unable to decipher marketing from educational material, is wrong.

Ultimately, we need to change our nation’s food policies so that food industry profits don’t come at the expense of public health. The FDA has proposed a new rule to improve food labeling that would require the amount of added sugar to be indicated on the nutrition facts panel of packaged foods. Tell the FDA that we need to label added sugar on our food. Although identifying added sugar won’t immediately change the engineered landscape of food we live in, it is a step in the right direction that our policy makers can and should take.