Sugar-Coated Science: Food Industry Uses Deceptive Marketing to Hide Added Sugar
Food companies use misleading marketing and front group campaigns to obscure the health consequences of added sugar in their products, according to a new report, Sugar-Coating Science: How the Food Industry Misleads Consumers on Sugar, from the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
Medical researchers have linked sugar overconsumption to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension. Despite these dangers, companies advertise products with added sugar using healthy-sounding language. For instance, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios are marketed as “whole grain,” which they are, but the product also contains 10 grams of sugar—10 times the amount in General Mills’ regular Cheerios.
“Companies are going out of their way to promote products with added sugar in them as healthier than they really are,” said Deborah Bailin, an analyst with the center and the report’s lead author. “In many cases, they’re adding sugar to otherwise healthy foods and misleading customers about it. It’s not just soda and snacks, either. Added sugar is in everything from bread to salad dressing and even frozen dinners.”
Since 1970, average daily U.S. sugar consumption has increased from 74.7 grams to 82.1 grams (20 teaspoons). That is more than double the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guideline recommendation of no more than 42 grams of sugar a day. The report documents that eating just a few sugar-added products during the day could easily cause someone to exceed the recommendation level. As Bailin notes in a blog post and via a supporting graphic based on the report, consuming just three General Mills products could exceed the daily sugar cap. Specifically, a Nature Valley Oats ’n Honey granola bar contains 12 grams of sugar, while it is promoted as high in whole grain. Similarly, one serving of Fiber One “Protein” Cranberry Almond cereal contains 16 grams of sugar. Finally, a serving of Yoplait strawberry Greek yogurt contains a whopping 18 grams of sugar, while the packaging emphasizes the yogurt’s protein content.
“The food industry always says people should be free to eat what they want,” said Andrew Rosenberg, the center’s director. “But people also deserve accurate, up-front information about what’s in the food they’re buying and companies simply aren’t giving it to them.”
The food industry spends nearly $7 billion annually advertising its products. About one-quarter of its spending is directed at youth advertising and sugar-heavy products make up the bulk of that spending. GoGurt yogurt, for instance, contains large amounts of added sugar, but has been advertised as healthy because it is free of “high fructose corn syrup.” The report also tracks misleading marketing campaigns for sugar-added products that have been specifically directed at women, minorities and low-income consumers.
Trade groups and front groups also play a significant role in misinforming the public, the report finds. Court documents recently revealed that the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) paid Berman and Company to run a misleading ad campaign through the Center for Consumer Freedom, a non-profit run by Berman and Company’s founder. The ads conveyed the message that all sugars—whether from corn, cane or beets—are “natural” and pose no health concerns. This message is misleading, the report says, because it distracts people from the risks associated with over-consuming sugar in any form. In internal emails, CRA’s then-president Audrae Erickson counseled colleagues to deny that CRA was financing the campaign.
Sugar-Coating Science report
Scientific and consumer awareness of sugar-added products is growing. In some cases, companies are trying to respond by highlighting key nutritional information, including sugar, on the front of their packaging. When they do so, however, they preferentially emphasize nutritional information designed to make consumers feel good about their purchase such as grain, fiber or protein content.
Beyond company actions, the report suggests several steps that could be taken to increase consumers’ access to accurate information about the food on store shelves. For one, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering requiring companies to list added sugars on nutrition labels. A public comment period for the rule ends June 2. Some state health agencies, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have also stepped up public service advertising about added sugar. Finally, consumer and advocacy group pressure has also pushed companies to drop inaccurate claims about their products, including Coca-Cola’s health claims about Vitamin Water and General Mills’ misleading claim that Fruit Roll-Ups contain “real fruit.”
The report is being released at a forum on integrating public health science into U.S. food policy, sponsored by Union of Concerned Scientists and the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. The forum will convene a wide range of scientists, policy experts and medical professionals to explore scientifically informed food policies that serve the public interest.
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When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
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