Added sugar curbs could end sweet times for Big Food

Name a food that's advertised on television, in magazines, or on the endcaps at grocery stores. And then look at the ingredients: if nine out of 10 don't have some form of added sugar, it's likely 10 out of 10. According to the American Heart Association, Americans consume nearly 1/2 cup of added sugar a day, or 88 grams; and it's not coming just from soda and candy, but from all our foods. And this week's recommendation, that most adults cut back to about 25 grams of sugar a day, could shake the foundation of the food companies whose bread, butter and honey-cured turkey are built of added sugar.

Anyone who's read their Michael Pollan knows if a food is advertised, it's probably not that good for you. This encompasses everything from the obvious (Fast food, Coca-Cola, Skittles), to the far less obvious (Stonyfield Farms Organic Yogurt, Heinz 57 Barbecue Sauce, Dole Mandarin Oranges, Jif Peanut Butter). All contain significant amounts of added sugar. Here's the thing: processed sugar makes our brains want more.

Sugar is cheap, especially corn-based sugar, which enjoys billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies in the U.S. (not that corn syrup is any worse for you than processed cane or beet sugar, as this illuminates). Sweetness masks others drawbacks of processed food; it helps us forget that the quality and freshness are not what they would be had the food been prepared from top-notch ingredients straight from the garden/mill/farm. And sugar is a fantastic preservative. Add sugar, and suddenly it makes sense to ship ordinary foods around the planet to sit on shelves in supermarkets, convenience stores and roadside stands.

Best of all, the sweeter something is, the more likely it is we'll overeat. And we'll seek out other sweet foods; if food manufacturers have done their jobs well, we'll eat more of the same foods. And as we are so hungry, we'll need to eat far more than we could have prepared, from scratch, in our own kitchens; so we'll need them to be more convenient (a.k.a. more highly processed). This vicious cycle goes on toward incredulity, where at the outside edge of the spiral (where we live today), we've had to add in vitamins and blow in air and salt water to create edible un-foods. These creations have become a strange and unpalatable intersection of chemicals and sugar, far removed from whatever was their nutritious root. As for us, the eaters of these un-foods? We are obese, stricken with diabetes and heart disease at rates that alarm everyone from epidemiologists to pediatricians to those politicians tasked with developing health policy.

So here we are, at this place that food writers have been foretelling this day: when large, politically neutral organizations begin telling us to stop eating so much processed food. Today, it is sugar. And let us be clear: in order to completely eliminate added sugar from your diet, you would not be able to eat food produced by corporation with more than a few million in sales. Here is what you would eat: whole foods. Not Whole Foods WIFI, but whole foods: fruits and vegetables and meats (please choose those that are raised sustainably because calls for restrictions on "conventionally raised" meat, CAFO -- Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations -- progeny and the like, are coming next, trust me) and whole grains and lentils and plain ordinary milk and cheese.

It would not save our nation in one fell swoop, but it would go miles. Aeons. Light years. And the food industry will, it is almost certain, slowly unroll the spiral, the roll of "fruit tape," as it were, forced to change its modern structure. If consumers listen -- and, eventually, listen they must, or die (literally) -- we will soon be demanding freshly baked breads (without sugar added), freshly picked fruit, tomato sauce made with ripe tomatoes because we can no longer mask their tastelessness by just pouring in the sweetener.

Food companies: times, they are a-changin'. You'll have to adapt, by making food that's of higher quality, in smaller batches and more based on a small number of delicious, fresh ingredients, or, rot.


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