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Friday, 2 June 2017

Government can't get us off sugar: Glenn Reynolds

Policies promoting sugar, in no small part, got us into this mess.

Protesters in Philadelphia in June 2016.
Should food stamp programs allow people to buy sugary drinks and snacks with taxpayer money? That’s a question that a lot of people are debating, but it raises more questions of its own.

There seems to be little remaining doubt that sugar is bad for you. I’ve been reading Gary Taubes’ new book, The Case Against Sugar, and he draws a compelling connection between the spread of sugary foods and drinks and the explosive growth of disease like diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

As Taubes notes, “When sugar and sugar-rich products spread around the globe, so did diabetes. . . .  And on those very rare occasions when sugar consumption declined — as it did, for instance, during World War I, because of government rationing and sugar shortages — diabetes mortality invariably declined with it.”

As sugar consumption skyrocketed in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th century, diabetes went from a disease so rare that major hospitals often went whole years without seeing a case, to a disease so frequent that doctors wondered what was going on. Many concluded that there was a relationship between sugar intake and diabetes. As late as 1974, he reports, when the sugar industry surveyed physicians, most thought that excessive sugar intake was a cause of diabetes.

But, by the late 1970s — with assistance from sugar industry lobbyists and subsidized scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health, about which Taubes has much unflattering history — dietary fat had become the chief nutritional villain, and government nutritional guidelines changed to reflect that storyline. Though the evidence for sugar’s destructive role was stronger, fat became thing to avoid, and by the 1980s many products were formulated to be “low fat” or “fat free.” To increase the flavor in the absence of fat, food processors added . . . more sugar. And Americans got fatter, and more diabetes prone.

Taubes admits that, strong as his case is, it’s not as strong as, say, the case against tobacco. It was easy to divide Americans into smokers and non-smokers. It’s practically impossible to find Americans who don’t consume sugar, and when you do find such individuals, they usually have dietary and lifestyle profiles that differ from those of other Americans in many other ways, too.

Nonetheless, speaking as someone who’s always pooh-poohed nanny-state crusades like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attack on soft drinks, I find Taubes’ case pretty convincing.

But what to do? On the one hand, many would like the government to get involved with new regulation. But — as Taubes’ history of government nutrition recommendations demonstrates — government involvement is part of the problem. Government policies promoting sugar, in no small part, got us into this mess. Without the government’s recommendations to avoid dietary fat that led to increased sugar consumption, many Americans would probably be thinner, or at least less obese. And then there are the subsidies.

If the government doesn’t want to pay for sodas and cookies with food stamp dollars, that’s fine with me. Taxpayer money should go for essentials, and there’s nothing essential about a Moon Pie washed down with an RC Cola, despite that combo’s popularity in my part of the world.

But the real lesson of Taubes’ story about government and nutrition is that anything the government does is inevitably political, and government dietary guidelines are thus bound to be driven as much by politics as by sound science or concern for public health.

So while fiddling with the food stamp program is okay, the real problem is that government can’t be trusted to do a good job with health recommendations. Perhaps we should simply take government out of that field altogether. Odds are if we’d done that 50 years ago, a lot of us would be slimmer, and healthier today.

Source USA Today
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