The U.S. Appetite for Sugar Has Skyrocketed

Wednesday, December 5, 2018
The Atlantic
Americans are eating too much of the sweet stuff, and a staggering portion of it is coming from drinks like soda.

Americans are eating too much of the sweet stuff, and a staggering portion of it is coming from drinks like soda.

Public-health researchers agree: The evidence is clear that Americans consume way too much sugar, that sugar contributes to weight gain, and that rising rates of obesity in the United States will lead to significant health problems in the future. What’s much less clear is what to do about it. In this special, first-ever two-part episode of Gastropod, we tell the story of how sugary beverages—soda, in particular—became Public Health Enemy No. 1. Why are politicians and scientists targeting soda? Why have most attempts to pass soda taxes failed? And do these taxes even work to reduce consumption and obesity?

Today, the average American eats a lot of sugar. Exactly how much is a little tricky to pin down—even different government departments publish different numbers. But even conservative estimates show that we’re eating far too much for good health. A couple hundred years ago, we might have eaten two pounds of added sugar in an entire year, while today we are eating that much, on average, in only two weeks. Children, in particular, are sugar fiends and, as Julie Mennella at the Monell Chemical Senses Center points out, from the age of 2, an American child is more likely to eat a manufactured sweet on any given day than a piece of fruit. Our current food system is awash in added sugars—in candy, cookies, and ice cream, but also in less obvious foods, such as bread, crackers, and ketchup. But, as Barry Popkin, an economist and a nutritionist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told us, “We can’t ban them—we can’t ban food!”

But can we make them a little less attractive, perhaps by making them more expensive? In 2009, Kelly Brownell, director of the World Food Policy Center at Duke University, and Thomas Frieden, then-director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote an op-ed that started a revolution. They suggested that a tax on sugary beverages would be “a key tool in efforts to improve health,” reducing consumption while raising revenue that governments could use to pay for obesity-prevention initiatives.

“Now, the soda companies will often complain that they’re getting picked on unfairly,” says Brownell. But, while it’s hard to pin down exactly what Americans eat and drink, researchers believe that roughly half the added sugar in the average American diet comes from sugary beverages: soda, of course, but also energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened teas, coffees, and juice drinks, among others.

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