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

This week the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists released a new report.


source: Advertising
source: Advertising Age 2014


Whether or not you believe that Lucky Charms cereal is “magically delicious”, that “life tastes good” when you drink a Coke, or that “there’s lots of joy in Chips Ahoy”, the odds are good that you have heard these and others advertising slogans for sugary foods and drinks.


Billions of dollars are spent annually by food and beverage manufacturers along with industry-supported organizations such as trade associations, front groups, and public relations (PR) firms (hereafter “sugar interests”) on emotional appeals such as these. Such ads insert the brands and products into our everyday lives, infuse our psyches with manufactured cravings for them, and shape the complex relationship we have with food.


Evading Science, Engineering Opinion


While it should be no surprise to consumers that cookies and soda contain added sugar, food companies also engineer the image of many foods to appear healthier than they actually are. Many unlikely products contain surprising amounts of added sugar. These foods include breads, crackers, pasta sauces, salad dressings, yogurts, and a wide variety of other processed foods. Yogurt, for example, has nutritional benefits, and General Mills wants us to eat its brand Yoplait because it “tastes SO good” (Yoplait 2014). However, whether we choose the healthy-sounding Blackberry Harvest flavor or the more dessert-themed Boston Cream Pie, Yoplait Original yogurt contains 26 grams of sugar per serving—more than six teaspoons of sugar, which surpasses the American Heart Association’s recommendations for a woman’s total daily consumption. Yoplait Light contains 10 grams of sugar per 90-calorie serving, still a lot of sugar-laden calories for a product marketed for its healthfulness.


Scientific research shows that the overconsumption of added sugar in our diets—not just the actual calories but the sugar itself—has serious consequences for our health. Added sugars—whether from corn syrup, sugar cane, or sugar beets—are a source of harmful calories that displace calories from other, more nutritious foods, especially at the level these sugars are consumed by most Americans (O’Callaghan 2014; Hellmich 2012). As discussed in our forthcoming report Added Sugar, Subtracted Science: How Industry Obscures Science and Undermines Public Health Policy on Sugar, scientific evidence increasingly confirms a relationship between sugar consumption and a rise in the incidence of chronic metabolic diseases—obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high triglycerides, and hypertension (Basu et al. 2013; Lustig, Schmidt, and Brindis 2012; Tappy 2012; Stanhope et al. 2011; Johnson et al. 2007; Jacobson 2005). Also, new research suggests that a higher percentage of calories from sugar is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, independent of the link between sugar and obesity (Yang et al. 2014). This scientific evidence 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 limits far below typical American consumption levels. In March 2014, the World Health Organization proposed new draft guidelines that recommend, as did the organization’s 2002 guidelines, that sugar should not exceed 10 percent of a person’s total energy intake per day (which amounts to a maximum of 50 grams per day or 12 teaspoons for a 2000-calorie diet). The 2014 guidelines further suggest that a reduction of sugar to below 5 percent of the total calorie intake per day—that is, six teaspoons—would have additional benefits, especially in slowing tooth decay, which is now globally prevalent (WHO 2014). Yet despite the existence of a great deal of scientific evidence linking excessive sugar intake to a range of health problems, and despite these science-based recommendations by prominent national and international organizations, Americans have continued to consume high levels of added sugar. One factor that has kept our sugar consumption so high is the deceptive and exploitative marketing strategies of industry sugar interests. Through advertising, marketing, and Sugar-coating Science 3 PR, sugar interests influence public opinion and consumer behavior at the cost of scientific evidence.


Their tactics trigger psychological, behavioral, social, and cultural responses that distract and manipulate consumers and divert their attention away from science-based health and nutrition information. Some companies have engaged in blatantly false advertising, and major industry trade groups have financed sophisticated PR campaigns that emphasize consumer freedom but facilely overlook the influence of sugar interests in shaping consumers’ perceptions of available food choices. The industry also targets children, women, minorities, and low-income populations—strategic for the industry, but a problem for public health. Children are unable to recognize persuasive intent the way adults do, women are exploited as the primary food decision makers in most families, and minorities and low-income groups in the United States have disproportionately high obesity rates driven by sugar interests’ concern for their profits rather than for public health. Together, sugar interests’ actions interfere with how the public responds to scientific information about added sugar, distorts our understanding of our food choices, and contributes to our continued high consumption of foods with added sugar.


Full report available here.