‘Dump that sugar’ campaign: good intentions gone awry

Posted by
January 3, 2013

Where's the syrup?

In mid-December 2012, to much fanfare, a dump truck poured 9.6 tons of white sand onto the parking lot of Howard County, Maryland’s Burleigh Manor Middle School as students shouted “Dump That Sugar!” The dumping display marked the official launch of Howard County Unsweetened, a multi-faceted, community-wide campaign to reduce childhood obesity by helping kids and parents choose beverages with lower sugar content.

There was, however, a catch to this catchy campaign. Sugar is actually found in very few of the soft drinks sold these days, the vast majority of which contain high fructose corn syrup. A more apt analogy  might have been to dump an equivalent amount of sticky fuel oil to represent this industry-exclusive, goopy test-tube sweetener, found in everything from soda to bread to ketchup.

But then, it seems that more and more such well-intentioned efforts these days are missing the mark by confusing HFCS with “sugar.” In fact, this particular campaign launched by a Maryland-based philanthropy with the stated purpose of reducing childhood obesity and making it “easier for parents and kids to make better beverage choices,” also somehow neglected to even mention HFCS on its extensive list of sweeteners. It was a significant omission, since the higher fructose content of this laboratory syrupy concoction is considered by many experts to be a prime suspect in the current obesity epidemic. (This September, Citizens for Health, filed a petition with the FDA asking that the agency take action against manufactures using HFCS with fructose amounts above 55 percent, the highest the FDA allows. Read about that here, and see and sign petition here).

There’s also the fact that the “healthier beverages” and “better choices” the campaign recommends include drinks artificially sweetened with aspartame. For many years critics of aspartame (including Citizens for Health and the Food and Drug Administration’s Public Board of Inquiry on the sweetener) have raised substantial doubts about aspartame’s safety and pointed out its potential to cause serious health problems.

The Howard County Unsweetened campaign, sponsored by the Horizon Foundation, comes complete with two separate websites, a Facebook page and lots of tweets, all of which refer to syrupy HFCS-sweetened drinks as “sugary.” The Foundation has also joined forces with County Executive Ken Ulman to keep these so-called “sugary” beverages out of vending machines on county property.

One of the Horizon Foundation campaign sites, betterbeveragefinder.org, contains an entire database of drinks designated by either a “best” or “good choice” icon (collectively referred to as “the best beverages for your family”).  Site-recommended beverage swaps include practically every artificially sweetened drink there is – along with where to buy them.

‘Sugary’  shorthand substitutes for HFCS

In May of last year the Food and Drug Administration ruled that HFCS is not sugar and cannot be called “sugar.”  In spite of this fact the Howard County campaign has joined a growing number of media, politicians and health authorities in falsely using the “sugar” and “sugary” designations to describe products containing high fructose corn syrup. In fact, Dr. Michael Goran, co-author of a recent study on the increase in diabetes, has referred to the prevalence of HFCS as “a huge shift in the food supply that is increasing the amount of fructose that we’re exposed to.” (Read blog here.)  Health authorities virtually all concur that the consumption of excess fructose can have serious health consequences including obesity.

In addition to such confusion, a second sweetener problem may be occurring as a side effect of these well-intended efforts. It now appears that the type of misinformation disseminated by health campaigns of this sort may be promoting the expanded consumption of “diet” sodas and juice drinks containing controversial artificial sweeteners.  This past August, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that kids are already drinking more such synthetically sweetened beverages than ever before – twice as many, in fact, as a decade ago.

The Foundation’s “Better Beverage” site does acknowledge that there is “a debate” over the relationship between diet beverages and weight gain, but aside from that there is no mention made of the other health aspects of substituting one highly controversial test-tube sweetener (aspartame) for another (HFCS). I couldn’t help wondering how an organization with a mission of “improving health and wellness” could be recommending drinks containing aspartame for kids over 13 while ignoring concerns about aspartame safety. I also wondered how it could fail to make any reference to HFCS on either of its websites. So I put these questions directly to Horizon Director of Communications Ian Kennedy.

Kennedy’s answer to the latter question was that the Horizon board, working in conjunction with the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, had decided it wanted a “laser-specific focus on sugary drinks” – one utilizing “a sort of shorthand for things that are sweetened.”

A railroad tanker transporting HFCS

Not only does the Foundation make a point of using this “sugary shorthand” in referring to all HFCS-laced beverages throughout its websites, but it also lists just about every different type of sweetener in existence – except, oddly enough, for the ubiquitous HFCS.

At betterbeveragefinder.org, the group categorizes sweeteners into three boxes representing “natural,” “artificial” and “hybrids.” While cane sugar – which is sucrose – is classified as “natural,” unaccountably, sucrose itself is listed separately as a “hybrid.”  Kennedy could not explain this inconsistency except to say he would “defer to our folks at the Rudd Center” on that question.

But the fact that HFCS, which is used in the vast majority of beverages containing caloric sweeteners, didn’t make the list at all is something Kennedy called an “oversight” on his part. He added, “we have corn syrup on the list, and as far as I understand (the difference) between corn syrup and HFCS is just that HFCS has been concentrated even more.”

In fact corn syrup and HFCS are decidedly not the same – (see my article here).

When I informed Kennedy  that there is a substantial difference between the two products, he again suggested he would put me in touch with the Rudd Center. I was also left a message from someone else at the Foundation later in the day offering to find a registered dietician who could “help” with my questions.  (I did call the Rudd Center but was unable to reach them during the holiday week. I plan to contact them again and try to get answers to these questions for an upcoming Food Identity Theft blog.)

One thing the betterbeveragefinder site didn’t neglect to mention, however, was sugar’s long-time presence in the food supply, calling it something “your grandmother might have used.” Kennedy concurred, adding, “certainly sugar has been a part of our diets for hundreds of years…the difference is we’re seeing that sugar is becoming a more prominent part of our diet,” with that second reference to “sugar” meaning any “full-calorie sweetener” such as HFCS. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, per capita consumption of sugar — like your grandmother used — has remained essentially constant for the past 100 years, while the use of HFCS, the “syrupy” stuff, has exploded during the time that obesity and diabetes has grown to nearly epidemic proportions.

Aspartame concerns still ‘premature’ after all these years of danger signs

Asked whether he thought the campaign encourages the consumption of diet beverages containing aspartame by teens, as reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Kennedy responded, “I don’t think so.” But he provided no evidence to support his position.

“We understand that people have their own tastes and if somebody really wants the taste of a cola, given the science that is out there, the better options for now are ‘low’ or ‘no calorie’ colas” (although the Foundation would prefer water or beverages without any sweetening agents as a  source of hydration).

“In our conversations and review of the literature, it’s mixed on artificial sweeteners,” he maintained. “There wasn’t the strong body of evidence pointing to their unhealthy nature that there was for sugary drinks. It’s a tricky area given the mixed nature of the scientific evidence,” but “we felt it was premature to exclude them.”

Strongly disagreeing with that assessment, however, is Citizens for Health Board Chair Jim Turner, a Washington, D.C. attorney and author of the best-selling book The Chemical Feast: The Nader Report on Food Protection at the FDA, who, since 1970, has been demanding that the safety of aspartame and other sweeteners, be proven..  “When something is harmful” Turner says, “the longer it takes to ‘prove’ the harm the greater the damage.  Here we have trusted intermediaries – schools, governments, obesity centers, etc. – recommending that children consume products in spite of the ‘mixed nature of the scientific evidence’.”

“The FDA and various companies that have profited from aspartame have turned the law on its head. They argue that aspartame should remain on the market until its critics can prove that it is unsafe,” says Turner.  “The law says no additive can be used unless and until it is proven safe. Schools and communities fighting obesity,” he adds, “need not and should not be bound by the notion that we should consume an additive until and unless it is proven unsafe.”

Turner’s work led to the removal of cyclamates from the FDA’s Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list of food additives, helped get a warning linking cancer and saccharin on saccharin labels, and led to the FDA’s Public Board of Inquiry that rejected the marketing of aspartame, only to be overturned by an industry friendly FDA commissioner.

Aspartame (originally marketed as NutraSweet), is made up of three neurotoxic chemicals – substances that are toxic to brain cells, Turner points out. His advocacy group managed to keep this synthetic sweetener off the market for 11 years, until 1981, when its use was approved over the advice of FDA scientists, as well as the FDA Public Board of Inquiry that concluded aspartame should not be permitted in the food supply based on data, including several animal studies, linking its consumption with brain cancer.

How, then, did aspartame ever make it into the food supply and why don’t today’s obesity fighters seem to care about its history?

“One month after that board ruled, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and Donald Rumsfeld, the head of Searle, the company that made aspartame, was on Reagan’s transition team. When Reagan took office, a doctor who had worked for the Defense Department during Rumsfeld’s tenure as Defense Secretary under President Ford was appointed as FDA commissioner and overruled both the Public Board of Inquiry and all the scientists at the FDA who supported its decision,” Turner explained.

Turner summarizes the entire aspartame fiasco as a case of “political toxicity and biological toxicity working together to create toxic health problems for the public.”

And while the Horizon Foundation refers to aspartame-sweetened drinks as “healthier” options than the full-calorie version, Turner has a far graver concern about its increasing consumption.

“After aspartame went on the market, a particular type of brain tumor, the same type that showed up in the rodent studies we were relying on over 30 years ago, increased by 10 percent in people in the United States,” he said.  “In addition, there have been studies in the past few years connecting aspartame with cancer. All in all, it’s a horrendous story.”

A story, apparently, that the Horizon Foundation is either unaware of or would rather not talk about. Instead, the Foundation chooses to focus its efforts strictly on calories, even while obscuring health concerns about aspartame and other noncaloric sweeteners and blurring the huge distinction between the consumption of traditional sugar and the high fructose corn syrup that has come to replace it in so many products.

Certainly a tanker truck dumping fuel oil onto the grounds of Burleigh Manor Middle School to chants of “spill that syrup” would have been a much more fitting way for the Foundation to have launched the Howard County Unsweetened campaign.