The Bittersweet Recipe for a Health Crisis

So the saying goes, “You are what you eat.” If this phrase holds true today, then according to America’s dietary habits, people are guilty of being far too sweet, and unhealthy. Dating back to the 1950s, professionals within the medical, nutritional, political, and food industries solely blamed fats and cholesterols for the planet’s growing health concerns, so they cut the fats, the cholesterols, and then poured in the sugar. Today, big food corporations and well-connected associations within the industry minimize nutrition by dumping sugar into their products in coordinated efforts to maximize their profits, and the impacts on consumers are huge. Something must change.

Understanding the present health crisis means understanding how the average diet became dependent on sugar while most consumers remained oblivious to the bittersweet truth. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a heart attack, an incident made public via his chief physician, Dr. Paul Dudley. In his press conference, Dr. Dudley informed Americans that the best way to avoid heart disease and other health hazards was by not smoking, and by minimizing fats and cholesterols within their diets. Dr. Dudley soon backed up his claims on fats and cholesterols in a follow-up article, based mainly on research by nutritionist Ancel Keys. Mr. Keys’ research is the key to help us understand the present.

After gaining popularized credibility from the support of powerful figures such as the President of the United States and his chief medical physician, Keys’ research had a nation convinced that fats and cholesterols were at the core of the growing heart disease and obesity problem. When I look around today, it’s mostly the same case. I walk into a grocery store, and I see products specifically marketed towards individuals and families trying to make health-conscious decisions about their diet, with products always labeled with trendy health phrases such as “Fat-Free” or “Low Cholesterol.” However, in order to make these “healthy” alternatives actually enjoyable and profitable, companies must add sugar into the recipes. Today, sugars are the most popular additives in the food supply.

In 1972, nutritionist John Yudkin’s “Pure, White, and Deadly” blew the whistle by explaining how sugars—not fats and cholesterols—are actually the major culprit behind the growing obesity problem. Yudkin’s claim insists that the levels of sugar being ingested by the average consumer are basically a chronic insult to their bodies, forming unhealthy quantities of insulin within and around their organic systems. This was a bold claim, considering that there was already an overwhelming consensus within the scientific community that they already pinpointed America’s health problems and solutions. Elite nutritionists with published research funded by well-connected food corporations and associations worked effectively to discredit his life’s work, further convincing people that the current paradigm on dietary health remained the same. Although Yudkin’s book actually did quite well at the time, today his research as a scientific nutritionist and health activist is similar to the work of many other prominent social, science, and health activists of the past century—largely forgotten.

Today, the struggle for healthy, nutritious diets persists. In 2003, the World Health Organization released a report relating to guidelines and recommendations for maintaining healthy dietary habits. In the report, the WHO recommends that no more than 10% of a person’s daily calorie intake should be taken from sugars, while big food coalitions such as the Sugar Association maintain that 25% of daily calories from sugar is perfectly acceptable. Given a 2,000 calorie daily diet, the World Health Organization recommends two hundred calories from sugar, while the sugar industry insists on five hundred calories, or an extra 2,100 calories from sugars every week in comparison to the WHO’s recommendation. Honestly, such numbers should sound the alarms in the consciousness of the people, but the mainstream media remains silent, leaving people uneducated and voiceless.

This collective ignorance allows food corporations to continue ringing in massive, if not record profits almost every financial-quarter and fiscal year by feeding people mostly unhealthy meals. We live in a world where PepsiCo and Coca-Cola own almost 40% of the world’s $532 billion soft-drink market, and the packaged food industry sees their sales sky-rocket into an annual $2.2 trillion industry. Consumers should be urgently insisting that companies spare some of their profits to protect the health of the people around the planet.

Obviously, a 15% reduction in sugar intake across the globe would significantly affect the profits of companies with products dependent on added sugars. So, it should not be surprising to find that food corporations interests include protecting their profits. In a threatening letter to the director general of the World Health Organization, the president of the Sugar Association insisted that the science behind their 10% figure was flawed, and if the recommendation was not lifted from the report, the industry would lobby the United States legislature to pull the nation’s annual $406 million in funding to the World Health Organization. When the report remained in circulation, the industry retaliated. In a separate letter to the U.S. health secretary, the Sugar Association along with other six other interest groups, representing over 300 companies, asked for the secretary’s personal intervention in the efforts to challenge the scientific credibility of WHO’s report and threaten to pull federal funding for the WHO. Although the 10% recommendation on sugar calorie intake was never redacted from the 2003 report, there was silence on suggested sugar intake in the World Health Organization’s 2004 report on diet and health recommendations.

Health is vital, and we must begin to engage in the critical conversations on how to improve health locally, and across the planet. The decisions being made by corporate executives in boardroom meetings effect anyone who lives in an area where their vast food empires spread, and their recipe’s currently aggregate to an obesity and chronic health epidemic which persists on a global scale. Unless we educate ourselves to purchase and consume products in mindful practices, we are giving our power of choice away to corporate executives who’s only concern are the final numbers on financial reports. Corporate profits may depend on sugar, but our diets should not. From an ethical perspective, people must decide whether or not the future costs to their health outweigh corporate short-term profits, and act upon those reflections.

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ianIan currently lives in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado. He is naturally curious about the world around him and enjoys long mountain hikes, creative culture, and all things science and science-fiction. He is currently pursuing a science degree at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.