Agave in Morning Light

“Big Sugar” Wants Other Sweeteners Called Out

No fair! So says the Sugar Association. “Big sugar” petitioned FDA last week because they want food labeling to call out non-caloric sweeteners. Not just sugar. You can’t really blame them for trying. Righteous food activists have been beating up on sugar so much, for so long, that per capita consumption of sugar and caloric sweeteners in the U.S. has been declining for 20 years.

Less Sugar, More Obesity

Of course, the nominal reason for demonizing sugar and driving ever more of it out of the food supply is to fight obesity. Unfortunately, this decline in sugar hasn’t brought a decline in obesity, but the theory is that we’ll have to wait longer to see the effect. Or maybe we haven’t hit the threshold necessary to solve the problem yet. Whatever. The fact is that obesity keeps rising steadily while sugar consumption goes down. Obesity hit a record high in 2018 – 42 percent of the U.S. population is now affected.

Undaunted, many public health advocates and health reporters are beating the drum harder than ever against sugar. At the same time, many of them will gladly vilify low-calorie alternatives to sugar, too.

Dragging Down the Alternatives

Thus it seems that big sugar has concluded it needs to drag down the reputation of other sweeteners. It makes sense. The opposition to sugar is so resolute that the best option left for the Sugar Association is to level the playing field. Maybe consumers will come to believe that anything sweet must be bad, so they may as well go for the real thing – sugar. It’s natural and authentic. And the basic human desire for something sweet will not evaporate. Some of the sweetest food around is a mother’s breast milk. One serving has 17 grams of sugar. It’s nature’s perfect food.

So no. No matter how much activists bang on about sugar, people will not stop looking for something sweet in their diets.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s entirely possible that the Sugar Association will succeed in it’s effort to drag non-caloric sweeteners to the inglorious position that sugar now occupies alone. Regardless, at some point, the cycle of vilification of sweetness will be complete. Sugar taxes and other measures against sweet foods will spread far enough for long enough that people will conclude this effort has played itself out. Just as the vilification of fat did.

Perhaps ultra-processed foods will land next in the hot seat. Who knows. But for whatever reason, we seem to be caught in a cycle of vilifying one sort of food after another. All it takes is a little bit of evidence and a lot of presumptions. And the results are, more often than not, unsatisfying.

Click here for more on the petition and here for the petition itself. For some perspective on the potency of negative messaging in social networks, click here and here.

Agave in Morning Light, photograph © Gordon Shukwit / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


June 7, 2020

2 Responses to ““Big Sugar” Wants Other Sweeteners Called Out”

  1. June 07, 2020 at 9:06 am, David Brown said:

    “History teaches us that men and nations only behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” Abba Eban

    “Consumption of vegetable oils, which were invented in the early 1900s, exploded during the 20th century. During the same decades that sweeteners increased by 19%, vegetable oil consumption rocketed up 91%. “”

    So did vegetable oils cause the obesity epidemic? Not entirely. More likely changes in animal husbandry practices along with increasing availability of meat had a larger impact.

    While it is widely acknowledged that the omega-3/6 profile of industrial (grain-fed) animal products is unbalanced, only a handful of researchers have expressed concern regarding the change. Notable examples are Olesia Makhutova ( and Anna Haug (

  2. June 09, 2020 at 5:32 am, Mary-Jo said:

    The search for finding THE drivers for obesity and what to proclaim next as such is, unfortunately, starting to look like quixotic quests. Much more time needs to be spent on examining what solutions work best to treat and prevent it, perhaps, pluralistic and difficult as that might be. We know that ‘eat less, move more’ is not good enough. We do know the inconvenient truth that obesity is an extremely difficult disease to examine, investigate, treat, and prevent. But, it’s a disease that, if offered better access for treatments and prevention, would improve health tremendously.