Add Sugar, Subtract Science: How the Food Industry Influences Policymaking
Food and beverage companies regularly obscure the negative health effects of over-consuming sugar when trying to influence food policy, according to a new report from the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The report, Added Sugar, Subtracted Science, comes as Congress debates allowing states to opt out of federal school lunch standards and as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers an added-sugar label on foods.
“Sugar interests are using the same playbook the tobacco industry pioneered,” said Gretchen Goldman, a lead analyst for the center and the report’s author. “They question the science, hire their own experts and try to hide the simple fact that eating too much sugar is bad for our health.”
The report draws heavily from documents released earlier this year as part of a lawsuit between the Sugar Association, which represents the sugar cane and sugar beet industry, and the Corn Refiners Association (CRA), which represents corn syrup producers.
Scientific evidence clearly links over-consuming sugar to heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other illnesses, but in many cases, trade groups and the companies they represent dismiss the evidence and refuse to acknowledge the public health damage their products cause.
For instance, while seeking to weaken federal school lunch standards in 2013, General Mills told the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that except for dental issues “sugar intake has not been shown to be directly associated with obesity or any chronic disease or health condition.”
Similarly, the Sugar Association told the USDA that “experts continue to conclude that sugar intake is not a causative factor in any disease, including obesity.” Ultimately, the USDA adopted a weaker rule than it first proposed, limiting kids’ sugar intake at school by weight rather than by calorie as public health experts had recommended.
The CRA has long funded two controversial scientists to produce research that aligned with CRA’s policy goals. Dr. John White and Dr. James Rippe were paid to promote the idea that corn syrup affects the body the same way table sugar does. A 2013 email from an employee at Cargill, which sits on the group’s board, described Dr. White as “CRA’s hired gun.”
Similarly, CRA has suggested that inconvenient findings about sugar should be concealed from the public. When a 2011 University of Southern California study found that there was more high fructose corn syrup in products than companies were disclosing, a CRA consultant suggested that the group sponsor its own research and that “if for any reason the results confirm [the original study], we can just bury the data.”
In 2009, the Sugar Association created a website to promote unscientific claims about sugar and diabetes. The now-defunct website claimed that “No! Sugar in the diet does not cause diabetes.” Similarly, for Halloween in 2010, the group created a factsheet that claimed “sugar adds to the quality of children’s diet.” A memo from a staffer at the time described the group’s strategy to “question the existing science” on the health effects of glucose versus sucrose.
The food industry adds sugar to a variety of products, including cereal, yogurt, soup and bread. Americans consume about twice as much sugar, on average, than the USDA indicates they should in its dietary guidelines.
Goldman will share the report findings at a June 26 public hearing the FDA is hosting in Washington, D.C. on its proposed added sugar label and other Nutrition Facts label changes. Several trade groups, including the Sugar Association, have already asked FDA to extend the comment period on the rule and the Grocery Manufacturers Association is promoting a misleading voluntary labeling program for its members. Other trade groups, including the CRA, have asked the FDA to wait for them to conduct their own research regarding consumer reception of new label changes.
Several public health experts have written to the FDA to ask the agency to adopt an added sugar label. Last month, the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS released a report documenting how the food industry obscures the added sugar in its products, including by highlighting other nutritional information, such as protein content in yogurt and whole grains in cereal.
“The good news is that the science is clear and people seem to be waking up to the risks associated with eating too much sugar,” Goldman said. “The bad news is that producers of sugar and sugary products continue to mislead decision makers on the science in order to undermine health and food policies.”
The report recommends that researchers disclose all real or perceived conflicts of interest, that investors and citizens pressure companies to align their consumer marketing and policy advocacy efforts with established science, and that Congress and federal agencies enhance transparency around corporate political activities.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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