Tony Norman: Sugar has turned into next great societal ill

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Hi, my name is Tony, and I'm a sugar addict. I've been one all my life. Most people reading this column are sugar addicts, too, though it isn't something we spend a lot of time or energy thinking about.

Most of us rarely think in terms of being addicted to a legal substance as ubiquitous and pleasure-inducing as sugar. Sugar beckons to us from every shelf in the supermarket, with the exception of the vegetable aisle.

Because it is added to everything, sugar is assumed to be harmless enough. Enriched bread is mostly sugar. So is alcohol. Sugar is added to food and condiments we don't typically associate with sweetness. People who brag about hating tomatoes love ketchup because it is a sugar product despite its "vegetable-like" taste.

Even hot sauce and most salad dressings are sugar-laden, though you wouldn't know it based purely on the tongue's feedback. It turns out that sugar is the "secret sauce" in everyone's secret sauce and permeates our food chain the way dark matter permeates the universe.

After seeing the Stephanie Soechtig documentary "Fed Up" recently, I've been thinking a lot about the place of sugar in our society and in my own diet. Though the heart of Ms. Soechtig's film is an exploration of escalating rates of childhood obesity, it is also a clear-eyed expose of what happens when a nation's food chain is controlled by corporations more interested in profit than the public health.

As my colleague David Templeton wrote in his review of "Fed Up," obesity is redefined in the film as "not overconsumption. Instead, it's the world's No. 1 cause of malnutrition, with obesity deaths worldwide now outnumbering those from starvation. Dr. [Robert] Lustig explains why. Sugar goes straight from the intestines to the liver, where it turns to fat, causing excess insulin production, which tricks the brain into thinking the body is starving. Consumption continues sans nutrition."

As the review points out, there is plenty of blame to go around for the sorry state of America's waistline: "The food industry protects profits by claiming there's no evidence its products are unhealthy. Cornered, its advocates only recommend moderation. The sole industry spokesman in 'Fed Up' comes off looking foolish," the review stated.

"Fed Up" makes an indisputable correlation between the tobacco industry's actions a half-century ago, when it knew it was hawking a deadly product, and the sophistry of the food industry today in defending the marketing of addictive products to children and adults.

The film illustrates how efforts to slap a sin tax on sugar-laden foods or ban them altogether are always met with fierce resistance from food lobbyists who know how to beat back reform efforts, which are usually too modest to begin with. Any attempt to improve the nutritional quality of food by limiting sugar content or directing consumers to healthier options is deemed a direct attack on the profits of the food industry.

The food industry was once terrified of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, because of her initial willingness to blame the growing number of obese kids on the industry's pursuit of profit.

That fear dissipated once Mrs. Obama shifted her campaign's tone to something more "pragmatic" -- encouraging kids to make healthier eating choices and to exercise more. Her industrywide critique vanished.

In exchange, the industry promised reforms to the nation's school cafeteria menu in accordance with the first lady's stricter school lunch standards, though pizza would inexplicably be counted as a vegetable in the new reality.

To great fanfare, Mrs. Obama and the food industry announced a nutrition program heavy on fresh vegetables with no sugary sodas allowed. Fast forward a few years and it is in danger of being scuttled, now that House Republicans want to give schools a chance to get out of the program if it is determined to be too expensive to feed students more nutritious food.

On a personal front, I was appalled by my own denial of nutritional science by eating many of the things that I do. Sure, I'm a sugar addict (among many addictions), but that means I'm obligated to do something about it and not simply go along with the destructive program.

In the coming weeks, I plan to share what I'm doing to get healthier while living in a toxic environment dominated by sugar and lousy food choices.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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