Dear Surgeon General: We’re Fed Up, Let’s Act on Sugar

When I was a child, I would read the ingredients on food packages. Nearly every package I picked up began with the same ingredient. "What's high fructose corn syrup?" I asked my Mom. "I don't know," my mom said, "but we could certainly get rich from selling it. It's in everything!"

Nowadays, most people recognize HFCS as sugar. And increasingly the public knows that sugar--whether from corn or from cane and beets--is bad for our health. But HFCS, and other sweeteners, are still in (almost) everything. Studies increasingly point to sugar overconsumption as a major contributing factor in rising risks for metabolic syndrome, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. And these risks are disproportionately affecting youth, and low-income and minority communities.


The Fed Up Challenge: "Is there sugar in that?"

This is, in part, why I decided to take the Fed Up Challenge. The challenge, motivated by the film Fed Up, is to go ten days without consuming any added sugar--from HFCS to honey. This includes bypassing not only cookies and crackers, but also yogurts, juices, breads, and more. Yesterday was my 10th day and, boy, was it tough. My eating habits have improved since my sugar-laden childhood food environment, but I quickly learned that sugar hides everywhere. I found sugar lurking in places I wouldn't have expected, such as my mayonnaise, mustard, and pasta sauce.

By far, the biggest challenge I faced during my sugar challenge was the simple task of determining whether something had added sugar or not. I read labels, asked wait staff, and did online research and still was not always confident that I was eating something sugar-free. As the Fed Up site notes, sugar goes by more than 56 names. Would the dressing on this noodle salad at the conference lunch have sugar in it? Did the waitress really know if they put sugar in my grits? Ultimately, I had more questions than answers and ended up staying more conservative in my food choices.

Lessons from tobacco: taking action on sugar and our health

I hope to continue some of the good habits from my Fed Up Challenge, but what it taught me most was the need for our society to address this growing public health concern. If even those actively trying to avoid sugar can barely succeed, what can we expect for the rest of us who might not know it's a problem or have the motivation, time, and energy to painstakingly read labels, ask questions, and be inconvenienced?

We need policies that make food choices easier. Here I'm reminded of the tobacco industry. Decades ago, smoking rates were higher and the public was beginning to wake up to the health risks of smoking. But action to curb tobacco use was ultimately driven by science. For our policies and practices to discourage smoking, particularly among children and young adults, we needed the backing of scientific authorities.

That science came in a statement from the Surgeon General. It sounded the alarm. After the landmark 1964 report alerting the public to the dangers of smoking, Congress was quick to act, instituting a health warning on cigarette packs, curbing cigarette advertising, and calling for subsequent reports and health monitoring. In the decades since that report, the research and evidence of the detrimental health effects of smoking have mounted and there have been many successful education campaigns, voluntary programs, and other measures that have helped significantly reduce the number of smokers in America.

On sugar, we are in a similar predicament. Increasing scientific evidence demonstrates health risks associated with sugar over-consumption, but we need a strong scientific voice to sound the alarm and open the door that enables us to better address this growing public health threat. That's why we are joining other scientists, public health officials, and citizens in asking the Surgeon General to conduct a comprehensive report on the health effects of added sugar, and issue a Call to Action to encourage health policies that curb added sugar consumption.

Cross-posted from the Union of Concerned Scientists Blog.