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.
But now that protection is in jeopardy because of the possible ratification this spring of the Central America Free Trade Agreement. This agreement would open U.S. markets up to the importation of more foreign sugar. The sugar lobby has fought hard against CAFTA, but the Bush administration has pledged its support. In addition, the new secretary of commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, opposed sugar supports last year when he was president of the Kellogg Co.; during a hearing last June, one of his deputies testified to Congress that the U.S. sugar program "is sorely out of step with a global economy." Gutierrez, acknowledging his biases, promised to recuse himself from debates on sugar in which he feels there is a conflict of interest.
Even in Congress, where sugar producers have long had a cozy relationship with members, support may be waning. Last year, Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, who had been cochairman of the Senate Sweetener Caucus and a major force behind favorable government policies toward sugar, retired. Also last year, Republican Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois founded the bipartisan Sugar Reform Caucus to try to cut sugar subsidies. They have been working with nonpartisan groups and drumming up support for their proposals in Congress. "In a private room, no one supports the sugar lobby," says Kirk.
Still, their opposition may stay behind closed doors as long as the sugar industry continues to fight back with one of the most powerful incentives in Washington: money. During the 2004 elections, the sugar industry gave more than $3.1 million to politicians, slightly favoring Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Fanjul family, which owns sugar farms throughout Florida and the Dominican Republic, gave $430,750 during 2004, and Jose "Pepe" Fanjul became one of President Bush's "Rangers" --those who raised more than $200,000. Alfonso Fanjul famously showed up in Kenneth Starr's report on the Monica Lewinsky affair because former President Clinton took his call when Lewinsky was in the Oval Office.
The ratification of CAFTA will most likely go to the Senate and House for debate later this spring, and the sugar industry will be in full battle mode. No doubt it will be chasing the support of Congress and the public, with a message similar to the one on the Sugar Association spokeswoman's answering machine:
"There's nothing better than the sweet taste of all-natural sugar. Only 15 calories a teaspoon. Why would you choose anything else?"
This story appears in the March 28, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.