Front Page      Killing me softly with your sugar

Winter-Spring 2013 Issue, Byline  
Killing me softly with your SUGAR
 by Alexandra Ares

You might think that at least savvy Manhattan is a safe place, but nobody is protecting us against unwanted added-sugar. It’s everywhere and especially where we don’t want it to be. Sugar is the new nicotine, and FDA is doing nothing to regulate it.  

The other day I was watching an old boxing match on TV, when I noticed how thin athletes were only a couple of generations ago -- compared to how buffed they are now. It’s not only the steroids, and not only the athletes, a large part of America is bigger or obese, carrying around the extra weight of the food industry’s corporate profits. And while the media cries wolf, the health care industry cries wolf, and some politicians cry wolf, my questions is who is protecting all of us, consumers from all the added sugar that the food industry is injecting in most of the foods on sale today? 

For sure, the FDA is asleep at the wheel, the same way SEC was conveniently asleep at the wheel before the financial meltdown, and I wonder if they’re all waiting for an even bigger ‘fat-ocalypse’ than having 60% of the country’s population obese, before they’ll start implementing small, common sense restrictions on adding sugar in all processed foods and beverages.

Take me. I am not a nutrition expert, just a normal consumer trying to eat healthy and budget my daily sugar. According to the American Heart Association (AHA) my daily sugar intake as a woman should be five teaspoons (20 grams) a day; for adult men, it’s 9 teaspoons (36 grams) daily, and for children, it's 3 teaspoons (12 grams) a day, but most Americans consume on average 22.2 teaspoons of added sugar per day. According to the AHA guidelines, added sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup or ordinary table sugar added to sodas, breads, and other processed foods, are responsible for the increase in calorie consumption and the rise in obesity of the past few decades. While natural sugar (in fruit, vegetables, diary and grains) is healthy, people with high added-sugar intake levels consume lower amounts of vital nutrients, such as zinc, iron, calcium, and vitamins.

As an educated consumer, I go to the supermarket and try to make the right choices, but all the fruit juices, even ‘healthy’ tomato juices, are laden with added-sugar that far exceeds my daily need, even in their “50% less sugar” version. I skip the sliced bread section, where most taste like cake, and I go the cereal section.  I look at the packaging that deceivingly advertises sugar laden cereals as healthy, carefully presenting low numbers per serving yet knowing full well that a cereal bowl takes several such servings to fill, which makes said servings unrealistic to begin with. Then I stride to the deli section, and try some foods that seem minimally processed, and I imagine, sugar free. Take my local Fairway for instance, which is one of the best in the neighborhood: I get a plastic container of chopped liver, tuna salad, and one of mashed eggplants, pleased that I’ve made a healthy choice, or at least a harmless choice. Only that when I arrive home and start eating, I almost vomit because of all the sugar added to these “homemade deli foods.” The deli containers have labels with some ingredients, but offer no nutrition list. What I thought was a 2-300 calorie snack, turns into 1000 calories of sugar laden food, unlabeled as such. Why should I be forced to walk several hours on the treadmill to burn a small amount of ‘natural’ food full of added sugar? Who is paying me back for the wasted extra gym time?

When I grew up in Europe, nobody ever put sugar in mashed eggplant, chopped liver or any of the deli-like ‘salads’, and the foods tasted so much better. Looking at the containers of the same foods sold in the US, I feel betrayed: there is no visible red sign that says ‘added sugar’, and that excess sugar causes diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Just like in the case of cigarette packs that state plainly that tobacco and nicotine cause cancer and lung disease, it’s time to do the same with all the foods containing added sugar.

As a consumer, I think that the FDA should protect us against added sugar, regulate it, and give us the alternative of heating healthy and normal, at the same price, not as a luxury item. For every drink, food and deli food that has sugar added, I would like to not only have it labeled as such (and with a nutrition and calorie disclosure for the entire package, not only per serving), but also have the same product on sale without any sugar or artificial sweeteners added, at the same cost. And I don’t mean, the ‘diet’ version, with aspartame and any other sugar substitutes, I mean no sugar and sugar substitutes at all.

Of course, the issue goes further than the food with added sugar sold in the supermarkets. For instance, according to a recent PBS documentary, there are more Chinese restaurants than fast foods in the US. It took me a trip to China to realize that real Chinese foods are not laden with sugared sauces like the one sold across America. Who is keeping track of that?

Some well paid MBAs and shrewd entrepreneurs have decided that people eat and drink more if the foods and drinks are laden with sugar, and if we look at the rampant obesity they were right. This is where the government and the FDA should step in and protect ‘we, the people’ by regulating added sugars in foods, drinks, processed foods and restaurant foods. And to all the food reps who will rush in to preach personal responsibility, I’ll answer with the following question: How can we even talk about personal responsibility when we aren’t given the choice; when we aren’t offered both the ‘sugar added’ and the ‘unsweetened' versions for all the foods and drinks?

Alexandra Ares is the editor of Manhattan Chronicles, and the author of the novels My Life on Craigslist, Dream Junkies and The Other Girl.