Stephen Upnor discussed on Freakonomics Radio

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Radio here's your host Stephen Upnor it's hard to find anyone who doesn't like sugar and nearly just as hard to find anyone who doesn't think that they're having too much of it I really like I know it's bad for you but I I don't know I like it well right now I am staying away from sugar so right now I'm just trying to try to you better have a better diet I tried to cut back on it but I've never given it up I think it tastes delicious in the right thing and I think that this point it's probably an addiction that our body my body just needs to have so that yeah I I've never tried to give it up nor will I give it up anytime soon I think his friends and families it wasn't always thus sugar started out as a a minor commodity that was used for medicine and for spice up until I would say into the Middle Ages that's Elizabeth Abbott she teaches history at Trinity College university of Toronto she's the author of sugar a bitter sweet history she says the debate over what sugar is a food and drug or something in between it's not new Thomas Aquinas way back in the thirties entry he pronounced sugar of medicine he said the nutritious in themselves sugar and spices are nonetheless not eaten with the end in mind of nourishment but rather for ease in digestion accordingly they do not break the fast anymore than the taking of any other medicine one reason sugar was welcome in medicine was because a lot of medicine tasted terrible the combination of bitter roots animal feces even bits of course so yeah spoonful of sugar really does make the medicine go down outside of medicine however sugar was decidedly aristocratic for example or you know Iran today it was very very popular among the elite and they are the ones that started this this trend this architecture of sugar and they would make beautiful sculptures often life for example lifesize trees sugar was costly and sugar was rare but the sugar trade began to grow built on the back of the slave trade so by sixteen eighty sugar costs only half what it had in sixteen thirty that was thanks to slavery by seventeen hundred the percentage of imported foodstuffs including sugar had more than doubled and they quadrupled between seventeen hundred and seventeen forty and England and Wales consumed sixty times more six zero times more sugar though their populations did not quite double abit argues that was the industrial revolution the help turn sugar into an everyday thing bill started going from their farms and so on in two cities and into factories and they couldn't go home for lunch because they had you know maybe a fifteen minute break so sugar and tea and binders or some sort of as thing like that with often with jam on it was offered instead and that was what popularized it said that it fueled the industrial revolution because sugar tea and it would be really sugary has calories and they're not nutritious but they are units of energy the sugar boom helped create another boom they were still living through they had a lobby the was extremely powerful I think that we could see all the big heavy industrial lobbying probably stems from the success of the sugar lobby that's right it wasn't enough to benefit from slave labor and huge demand for their product the sugar plantations were profitable not just because of the demand but largely because of how they were politically strong if they had failures if they had hurricanes if they had bad crops which they often did they could keep the price they could get parliament to help them out with that with good legislation and at at tariffs and so on that would favor them and by the way the sugar lobby still a very important one and it has a lot of weight still and it now is a sort of an alliance of cane sugar planters and beach sugar planters and they do get together to to lobby when when they feel that their interests are at stake it was only recently uncovered that in the nineteen sixties the sugar industry paid three Harvard scientists to write a review that shifted the blame for heart disease from sugar to saturated fat much more recently coca Cola spent millions of dollars on research arguing that the real culprit in obesity is lack of exercise not sugary drinks so you can't blame people for being confuse maybe conflicted about the degree to which sugar is a health risk I brought this up with Robert let's dig a lot of people now are convinced that the US government and many others aired terribly into clearing fat to be the enemy or at least the enemy of the scope that was declared to be to be the cause of obesity and that and many people now believe as as you argue that sugar is a much bigger bill and how do we know you're not the guy that's wrong this time that you're not just another perhaps even well intentioned big brain just do gooder who was making a massive mistake awfully good question so this is known as the pessimistic medic induction fury what it says is well everything we knew ten years ago is already wrong and everything we know today will be wrong ten years from now so why should we do anything differently when we know that whatever it is that we believe today will end up being wrong so if you play that game then you might as well never do any research never do anything at all and just basically live with the current dogma there's also the confounding fact as pointed out by former FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg that a lot of time you're eating sugar even when you don't know your eating sugar things like barbecue sauce and spaghetti sauce and soup actually have much higher levels of sugar than you would ever imagine talk to me for a moment about the smart choices program and and what the FDA did their well the smart choices program was an effort spearheaded by industry and number of major food producing companies came together to create a system where you would give different scores to different aspects of the nutritional value of the product and the total number of would then either give you the green Chad I have a smart choice or not the the title I got the name I gather was an industry yes not a not a right right exactly right I mean the problem with that was that you could the score adequately high to get that green smart choice check without the food truly reflecting I think what any sensible nutrition expert would view as a have a healthy smart choice you know some of the products that got the the smart choice label you know were very high in sugar you know over forty percent sugar we joked that you could practically take sawdust and if you added enough nutrients to it in the fiber of sawdust you know you could have it labeled as a as a healthy choices smart choice right so how long did that last so it was it was out there for a little while we expressed our concerns to the group that had put this together and was implementing at and I think they they listened and understood and they decided voluntarily to withdraw the program and there have been a number of efforts to look at other strategies for providing consumers with important information about foods the nutrition facts label of course is one important aspect but the nutrition facts label that son you know most processed foods and beverages in in this country was first put into place now more than two decades ago but then it was never updated and so when I was commissioner we decided it really did need to be updated to reflect both deeper understandings about how people each you know serving size for example but also advances in nutrition science and so we embarked on a process to update at I think the most important contribution that this updated nutrition facts label provides is in the area of added sugar as I understand it food and beverage companies are already adjusting their products to consider it the new labeling was that your intention well absolutely one of the goals of putting out that information is to encourage companies to reformulate foods towards you know healthier products and we've certainly seen that happen as we move towards this the implementation of this new nutrition facts label Stonyfield yogurt I believe decided to significantly reduce levels of of sugar before the the new facts label is actually in place FTA in some ways has the opportunity to use both the carrot and the stick you know knowing that we we could do mandatory guidelines on certain things it often encouraged industry to work with us to come to voluntary approaches but there's no doubt that the there are tensions one big argument for stringent regulations against of or maybe even an age limit of some kind meaning you can't really consumed much of it until a certain age is that there's a lot of scientific research showing that all kinds of habit formation happens when were very young and so obviously if kids grow up eating and drinking a lot of really sweet stuff it can be hard to back off given that fact could you see justifying some kind of sugar regulation that really targets as some people have suggested Robert lusting I'm guessing you're familiar with his his arguments that may be there should be a really stringent regulation of sugar when it comes to kids you know I think that clearly behaviors get established very early on developing tastes for hi sugar foods you know set you up poorly for the future we know that more and more American kids and adults are overweight and obese and you know just in the last thirty years I think we've seen rates of obesity in childhood double so we need to take that seriously we need to address that I am not sure that the kind of regulation that you're raising here and that some have put forward is realistic I think what we want is an approach that can really be implemented and really make a difference and I do think that the FDA's contribution around the nutrition facts label is really quite significant because it's gonna help inform consumers towards making smarter choices but it's also going to change industry behavior I think it's important to look at other areas of social policy as well as other ways to educate the public to make better choices such as what are some other examples are you mentioned other strategies in addition to the labeling well there's been a lot of debate about soda taxes and you know it's certainly been an area of some controversy but a number of cities in this country have adopted soda taxes and some other nations have Mexico being one prominent example and it really has been increasing awareness of of concerns around sodas why they represent you know really empty calories that put you at risk for excessive calorie consumption and adverse health effects and I think we're seeing shifts in social norms partly because of that debate generated by the soda tax and partly because of other opportunities where issues around sugar and the negative health impacts of excessive sugar has been raised but we're seeing consumption of soda come down quite dramatically in this country and I think that's an encouraging trend and and one that I think we want to continue to reinforce so Robert let's stick he like several others in in that camp argue that that sugar should be regulated substantially because it meets the criteria for substances that should be controlled or regulated unavoidable of the toxicity potential for abuse and negative impact on society so I'm curious what your thoughts are on sugar feeding those criteria whether you think that's even a useful framework I think that we need to reduce excess sugar in our diets and in the products that we consume I think consumers need more education and information but I'm not sure that I can really embrace you know the proposal to regulate sugar in that way because it would be to over reaching because it would be too difficult why it's a complex area to regulate in that sugar is you know our intrinsic components of many foods many foods which I should be part of a balanced nutritious diet fruits and vegetables and dairy products are good examples and I I think that you know some of the the concerns that have been raised you know may not be fully grounded in the best possible science not fully grounded in the best possible sites that you'll recall was Richard cons main objection to the idea of regulating sugar but there's another one too okay so if you reduce it or get rid of it or put up policies and laws regulating it what good is it going to do and we have no clue no real good evidence that it's going to do any good whatsoever and therefore unintended consequences become a very important factor Robert lusty egg meanwhile is as you have like we figured out by now in favor of just about any kind of sugar regulation you can't imagine taxes for instance and price hikes both of which worked to reduce cigarette smoking and are already being used on sugary drinks in a few places well the the modeling studies that have been done suggest that you have to raise the price of a can of soda by about twenty percent in order to see any meaningful reduction in consumption let's dig is also in favor of limiting the availability of sugar removing vending machines from schools for instance also banning TV commercials for products with added sugar also getting rid of subsidies subsidies for food make no sense because subsidies distort the market okay one last question perhaps ridiculous or impossible but let's say we're in a world where you could edit jeans quite easily and and it seems we're not that far from it whether we're talking about a fifty year old person or as I go how would you consider editing the genes related to what seems to be a craving Pratt's even dangerous craving for sugar well that's a really tough question we don't want to turn off our reward system entirely if we do we actually get into trouble we actually did this we did this experiment with the medicine back in the early two thousands the medicine was called reminded the aunt and.

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