Regulatory Focus on Added Sugars Presents Road Blocks in Reducing Obesity

October 17, 2014 Bloomberg BNA

By Catherine Boudreau

Oct. 10 — Efforts to regulate sugary foods and beverages have public health advocates and the industry divided, despite what seems like a shared goal of combating obesity.

Americans consume an average of 22 teaspoons, or 355 calories, of added sugar each day, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). And between 2005 and 2010, people got an average of 15 percent of their calories from the sweetening agent.

This alarms the public health sphere that see targeting the most widely consumed sources of added sugars—such as soda, energy, sport and fruit drinks and processed food—as a good starting point for combating the obesity epidemic. Meanwhile, the food and beverage industry, which has focused on voluntary calorie-reduction strategies, fight regulatory efforts on sugar at every turn.

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The Profit Dilemma

“The issue is simple,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of the blog Food Politics. “The food industry’s goal is to sell more products to maximize profits, while the goal of consumer advocates is to maximize health. These goals could be congruent in theory, but rarely are in practice. Junk foods are more profitable than fruits and vegetables.”

Even if a food or beverage company wants to act, it takes a long time because of market forces, Derek Yach, executive director of The Vitality Institute said. There will always be a focus on profits, he added, and a company has to stay afloat while the change is happening.

“If you look back six or seven years at the volume of beverages in the low and mid-calorie range, it was somewhere around 20 percent. Now that’s at about 50 percent and we’re likely to see that increase to 75 percent,” said Yach, a former vice president of global health and agriculture policy at PepsiCo and one of CEO Indra Nooyi’s first recruits to ensure the company became healthier.

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Yach said several things need to happen, including subsidizing or discounting healthier foods, reducing portion sizes and marketing to children, as well as a change in the perception of value.

Yach has worked on the links between agriculture and nutrition, determining that all of the incentives are aligned with simply producing more as opposed to more nutritional commodities.

“The subsidy structure favors corn, soy, wheat and sugar, so there’s no surprise that these are the base ingredients in most products; they’re cheaper,” Yach said. “So other foods like fruits and vegetables are more expensive, which has enormous long- term implications.”

People also have to shift their perception of value when it comes to food and beverages, Yach said. Currently, value is placed on getting more for our money. This needs to be shifted toward the quality of products we buy.

Yach added that if the government gave stronger support to healthier products like fruits and vegetables, the market would respond.

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