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Sugar: Public (health) enemy No. 1?

A picture shows sugar obtained from sugar beets in French firm Tereos' sugar refinery in the French northern town of Lilliers. Should the government in the U.S. be able to regulate how much of the substance ends up in our food?

Kai Ryssdal: These are busy days for state legislatures it seems. Down in Florida there's a bill pending to stop people from using food stamps to buy foods that are unhealthy, sugary snacks are on that list.

Commentator Mark Bittman says that's a fine idea, but one that doesn't go quite far enough.


Mark Bittman: Florida state Sen. Rhonda Storms could never be thought of as progressive. But her bill puts her in the same camp as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who suggested something along similar lines, only to have it batted down by federal ag officials, who described it as "too complex."

What's not complex is our relationship with sugar. We eat too much of it: half a pound a day per person -- and it makes us fat. The processed food industry says sugar is not to blame. A calorie is a calorie, they say. Limit your total calories -- regardless of where they come from -- and your health will be fine. Well that's total nonsense. A calorie of refined sugar is far more likely to cause damage to your body than a calorie of, let's say, fiber.

With sugar, we're in a situation where a dangerous substance is perfectly legal and available everywhere. It's sold without restriction to everyone, and it's marketed, with billions of dollars, to children before they can even speak, let alone reason. What choice do we have but to regulate it, just as we would -- and do -- regulate tobacco and alcohol and, for that matter, firearms?

This is so obvious that Florida state senators not known as forward-thinkers can see it, though the Department of Agriculture evidently can't. But this is precisely what government is for: to protect us from the things from which we cannot protect ourselves. Sugar is not exactly an invading army, but it can be thought of as a hostile force, and the processed food industry has succeeded in getting us to eat way more of it than is good for us. Will power alone isn't enough to stop that -- we need national defense.


Ryssdal:  Mark Bittman is a columnist for the New York Times. He's also the author of "How to Cook Everything." Drop us a line about what you're eating or cooking or anything else you want to tell us -- write to us.

About the author

Mark Bittman has been an avid home cook since 1968, a journalist for nearly as long (longer if you count his high school yearbook), and a professional food writer since 1980.
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First of all, we all should try to avoid sugary drinks, they contain large quantities of sugar that is harmful for us. My doctor told me a lot of interesting facts about sugar and how it affects the human body when I made him a visit the last month, I suggested him to place such kind of information on his http://iversmd.com/ website so more people would know these facts.

For the science behind it, refer to Dr. Robert Lustig's work on sugar's toxic effects. The long-term effects are very similar to that of alcohol. While the short-term effects do not carry the same neuro-toxic symptoms, the chronic over-indulgence results in the same diseases including liver failure, addiction, and pancreatitis.

As a dietitian who works with obese kids to help them make healthy lifestyle changes, I see huge changes in their health when sugar, mainly as sugar-sweetened drinks, is removed from the diet. If other changes are made without removing sugary drinks, they do not make as much progress.

Pondering about this a lot lately has led me to a good summation point: think about and treat sugar consumption almost exactly as you would alcohol consumption. It is accepted when consumed by adults in moderation, but not by youngsters. Nor is it alright when too much is had over a long time period. Just as alcohol advertisements and sales are still allowed yet highly regulated to protect our public health, sugar is worthy of similar oversight.

Mark, though you may have been wrong about the calorie content of fiber, which is not necessarily zero due to colonic microbe metabolism, you are right on in this commentary on the need for "national defense" against sugar.

I am a mother of two. I work on a farm, I have my own vegetable garden, I have been studying nutrition for many years. I cook for my children and educate them on the importance of healthy eating. I even created a nutrition program in my kids' school to educate other kids on the importance of eating fruits and vegetables. With all that I do to try to give my children a healthy foundation and the tools to make healthy choices in the world, IT IS NOT ENOUGH! I need more help! The advertising for sugar is ruthless and incessant. Their friends consume insane amounts of sugar all day long. From breakfast to dessert there is little nutrition going into their little bodies, mostly sugar and processed foods. I agree with Mark when he says that sugar needs to be regulated. NOT so you can't make a cake! How selfish! It's so that children aren't consuming it ALL day long - a pound and a half! Kids want what everyone else is eating. No matter how much education I give my kids, if it's CONSTANTLY around them; in school, at friends houses, at parties, given to them by the bus driver and other unknowing adults, at THE DOCTOR'S OFFICE, it's EVERYWHERE, it's what they see, it's what they want. How are children supposed to be strong enough to say, "no"? When adults can't even say no. Yes, sugar needs to be in the same category as tobacco and alcohol. It is just as addictive and causes just as many diseases in kids & adults. Something has to be done & fast we are losing this generation & it's painful to watch. I am a problem solver not a complainer, but I need help. Just as we had public service announcements against smoking we need that for sugar too. Parents & children need to be educated. The schools certainly are not doing it, that's why I created the nutrition program. Thank you Mark for speaking out! Your commentary may have seemed far fetched to some, but, I'm in the middle of it and I agree, the laws are not going far enough. This country needs a wake-up call and fast!

I am a mother of two. I work on a farm, I have my own vegetable garden, I have been studying nutrition for many years. I cook for my children and educate them on the importance of healthy eating. I even created a nutrition program in my kids' school to educate other kids on the importance of eating fruits and vegetables. With all that I do to try to give my children a healthy foundation and the tools to make healthy choices in the world, IT IS NOT ENOUGH! I need more help! The advertising for sugar is ruthless and incessant. Their friends consume insane amounts of sugar all day long. From breakfast to dessert there is little nutrition going into their little bodies, mostly sugar and processed foods. I agree with Mark when he says that sugar needs to be regulated. NOT so you can't make a cake! How selfish! It's so that children aren't consuming it ALL day long - a pound and a half! Kids want what everyone else is eating. No matter how much education I give my kids, if it's CONSTANTLY around them; in school, at friends houses, at parties, given to them by the bus driver and other unknowing adults, at THE DOCTOR'S OFFICE, it's EVERYWHERE, it's what they see, it's what they want. How are children supposed to be strong enough to say, "no"? When adults can't even say no. Yes, sugar needs to be in the same category as tobacco and alcohol. It is just as addictive and causes just as many diseases in kids & adults. Something has to be done & fast we are losing this generation & it's painful to watch. I am a problem solver not a complainer, but I need help. Just as we had public service announcements against smoking we need that for sugar too. Parents & children need to be educated. The schools certainly are not doing it, that's why I created the nutrition program. Thank you Mark for speaking out! Your commentary may have seemed far fetched to some, but, I'm in the middle of it and I agree, the laws are not going far enough. This country needs a wake-up call and fast!

Mark Bittman misses the point entirely. The question is not whether sugar is good or bad for us, but whether you have the right to decide for me, or anyone else, who can have it. Alcohol is also not good for the human body, but does that give me the right to decide whether Mayor Michael Bloomberg can drink Champagne?

Sure we have a minimum drinking age, but it is for everyone. All who reach the legal age have the right to drink equally, regardless of economic status. Or is this Animal Farm, where "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" ?

The problem isn't sugar; C&H has enough of Congress in their back pocket to make sure that sugar is disproportinatly expensive in the US. The problem is corn subsidies making high fructose corn syrup so cheap.

It's funny, are we trying to put prohibition back in place using sugar as the target? I'm receiving food stamps and I don't do much take out or prepared foods so does that mean i'm now going to be banned from buying a bag sugar because people can't control themselves? How can you sacrifice my lowly life to save other people who are too lazy to cook from scratch? Come on, there are people starving in Africa.....

Sugar is a food. It is not a drug or a weapon, as your argument in favor of regulation suggests. This is what government is for? To protect us against ourselves? Your cookbook, How to Cook Everything, is on my bookshelf, and I pulled it down to find that sugar is an ingredient in many, many of your recipes. You are a hypocrite and a fraud. I put your cookbook in the garbage.

I know it's fashionable to bash sugar these days, first we had fats, then trans fats, then carbs so I guess now it's the turn of sugar, but the evidence that the increase in obesity from 15% in 1970 to >30% today is specifically due to increased sugar consumption isn't supported by the facts. Since 1970 our total dietary intake of calories has increased by 23%, but the increase in calories from added sugar is just 14%, that means proportionally, the number of calories from sugar has decreased since 1970, not increased. What has increased the most is our calories from added fat (56% increase) and grains (45% increase).

Want to know why people are getting fat?? They eat too much, duuh! (All data from ERS-USDA).

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