How the Sugar Industry Is Using Big Tobacco Tactics to Downplay the Danger of Your Sweet Tooth

According to scientists, lobbyists are trying to discredit evidence and are hiring experts to manipulate food policy.
(Photo: Evan Sklar/Getty Images)
Jul 20, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

Nutrition labels will soon get major improvements, such as calorie listings in larger print and more realistic serving sizes. Food industry lobbyists have been particularly worried about an additional line to the labels: “added sugars.” To fight it, big sugar has been employing strategies that scientists compare to schemes used by the tobacco industry decades ago.

“[They’re] different players, but it’s the same game,” Gretchen Goldman, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Daily Beast. “We’re seeing the exact same tactics that Big Tobacco was using. They’re trying to manufacture doubt in the science, they’re trying to pay their own experts to carry their talking points, and they’re doing these things with the intent to undermine public policy.”

Letting consumers know how much sugar companies add to their food seems like common sense. In February, scientists found that Americans who consume at least 25 percent of their calories from sugar triple their chance of dying from heart disease compared with those who get less than 10 percent. But Lee Sanders, a spokeswoman for the American Bakers Association, told The Daily Beast that “there is no chemical difference between naturally occurring sugars or added sugars, and…there is no scientific evidence that added sugars are linked to obesity or other chronic diseases.”

Supporters of the updated nutritional labels argue that foods with added sugar are some of the unhealthiest items in grocery stores, and information that differentiates between natural and added sugars better informs consumers.

“The food industry’s response has said that the body doesn’t distinguish between added and natural sugar, and that’s true…but we do no harm by limiting added sugar, and we know it’s a good way to limit calorie intake,” said Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association. “It seems to be a logical step to include added sugars on the label.”

Companies also object to the proposal’s high cost; the FDA estimates a price tag of $2.3 billion to relabel and reformulate the products and keep records.

“The food industry knows that when they add [sugar] to food, you buy more. They don’t add it for any other reason,” said Robert Lustig, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “You can’t tell how much sugar has been added, and the food industry wants it that way.”

Lobbyists are expected to ramp up their campaign to remove “added sugar” from the FDA’s proposed label in the next two weeks, as the public commenting period on the issue comes to a close.

Want to have your say about the new labels? Comment on the FDA’s website before the Aug. 1 deadline.