Manu Poison Frog

Sugar Warnings: Dose Makes the Poison

This week, a U.S. appeals court struck down a San Francisco law requiring sugar warnings on advertising for sugary beverages. The law dates to June of 2015. It called for the following warning:

WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.

The ordinance was the first of its kind to take effect in the U.S. It required the warning to occupy at least 20% of every ad for sugar sweetened beverages in San Francisco.

Excessive Consumption

The court rejected the rule because they found the warning to be misleading. In court’s ruling, Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta explained:

By focusing on a single product, the warning conveys the message that sugar-sweetened beverages are less healthy than other sources of added sugars and calories.

This message is deceptive in light of the current state of research on this issue.

The court also found fault with the implication that any amount of added sugars might be harmful. Ikeda pointed to FDA guidance that added sugars are generally recognized as safe and can be part of a healthy dietary pattern when not consumed in excess.

Where Comparisons to Tobacco Fail

Painting sugar as toxic and comparing added sugar to tobacco is quite fashionable right now. However, these claims fall short of being true. For most products, it’s the dose that makes the poison. Sugar is a good source for energy. But too much is a problem for health. For Nutrition Facts labels, FDA has decided that the maximum should be 50 grams per day of added sugars.

And that’s where comparisons to tobacco break down. When used as intended, cigarettes will likely kill you. Sugar will not.

Zealous efforts to wipe out sugar sweetened beverages will fail. People have been drinking sweet beverages for thousands of years. But only recently has overconsumption been a problem. If you want a villain, think about the tools for promoting overconsumption: two-liter bottles, unlimited free refills, and supersizing. France is already acting.

Public health leaders should re-focus on efforts that make a real difference in nutrition and health. Tilting at windmills might be thrilling, but it’s not helping.

Click here for more from the San Francisco Chronicle and here for the opinion from the court.

Manu Poison Frog, photograph © vil.sandi / flickr

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September 21, 2017

2 Responses to “Sugar Warnings: Dose Makes the Poison”

  1. September 21, 2017 at 3:08 pm, David Stone said:

    >>When used as intended, cigarettes will kill you.<<

    I am no fan of smoking anything, but the above has become a cliche phrase and is an unnecessary exaggeration. Smoking *can* kill you by damaging arteries and/or damaging lung tissue, but perhaps half of smokers reach a ripe old age. "The dose makes the poison" applies as well to smoking; "as intended" is vague

  2. September 25, 2017 at 9:35 pm, Ted said:

    Thanks David. You have a point. I’ve revised the post a bit, accordingly.