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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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