No, it's not just your sweet tooth
Kids love the public service announcements released last fall by the Nickelodeon cable network. In these ads, sugar sacks, the kind you buy at the grocery store, lurk under tables, sneak around doors, and disguise themselves as sucrose, glucose, and maltose--"all words that rhyme with gross," says the announcer. The Sugar Association wasn't so amused. It sent Nickelodeon a cease-and-desist letter asking the network to pull the spots and threatening litigation. Nickelodeon says it intends to keep running the ads.
Meanwhile, the Sugar Association will soon have its own ads--being tested in markets in the Midwest and Northwest this summer and rolled out regionally in the fall. The $3 million to $4 million ad campaign, funded by sugar beet growers, is part of an effort to improve the sugar industry's damaged image in the wake of the nation's obesity scare. After several decades of declining sales--much of it lost to cheaper high-fructose corn syrup--the industry felt it needed to "reintroduce the consumer to sugar," says Melanie Miller, a spokeswoman for the Sugar Association. But it may need to do more than reacquaint the public if it wants to keep its privileged position as both a highly protected and consumed commodity. The industry, long used to having its way on Capitol Hill, is threatened from both inside and outside the beltway. Within government, the programs that supported U.S. sugar growers for decades could be in jeopardy. And among consumers, the popularity of diets such as Atkins and South Beach has turned public opinion against sugary foods, and it appears that consumption of some sweets, such as soft drinks, is declining.
Sweet connections. For years, the industry has fought to discredit the idea that sugar is bad for your health, and it has a fair amount of ground to stand on. There's little direct evidence linking sugar to obesity or other chronic diseases, though as nutrition Prof. Marion Nestle puts it, "Sugar keeps bad nutritional company." A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women who drank soda pop or other sweet drinks were more likely to gain weight and had a higher risk for diabetes than other women. Another study, in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that children who ate some types of sweet foods--candy, soda pop, and sweet bakery goods--were less likely to get all their recommended vitamins than other children. Last year, for the first time, a government committee linked sugar-sweetened beverages to obesity. Then in January, guidelines from the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services made recommendations for sugar consumption stricter than ever before.
Politics and dollars. Yet, the sugar industry's real battle may have less to do with diet books than with pocketbooks. Federal law, based on legislation from more than 70 years ago, limits the amount of foreign imports of sugar and guarantees sugar cane and sugar beet farmers a certain price for their sugar. Last year, those protections inflated the U.S. cost of sugar to more than double the world market price--20 cents a pound, compared with 9 cents on the world market. If that system were removed, the Government Accountability Office estimates, consumers would save as much as $1.9 billion. "It is the ultimate protected industry," says Allan Cigler, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.