Our sugar and calorie addiction

get the biggest one possible, preferably with whipped cream (photo: mastermaq via Flickr)

Here’s a true story: I had a coupon for a free drink at Starbucks.  So I went in with my coupon for a Frappuccino.  The clerk automatically picked up the largest cup, but I said “No, I’ll have the smallest size please.”  Her response: “Usually when people get a free drink, they get the biggest one possible.”  Value trumps common sense.  Get your money’s worth, meaning get the biggest possible size.

Discussions about why we have an obesity epidemic inevitably turn to calories, which inevitably turns to sugar.  In recent months, fructose, especially in the guise of high fructose corn syrup, has been painted as the single most important villain, as if the obesity epidemic were a crime scene.  Attempts to tax soft drinks, restrict vending machines in schools and limit the size of sugar-sweetened beverages all originated in our increasing paranoia about sugar calories.

Conspiracy theorists argue that evil food manufacturers are taking advantage of our natural preference for sweet tastes, ramping up sweetness level of everything.  Result: Americans are hooked on treacly sweetness.  Children grow up thinking the sweetness level of soft drinks is “normal”.  They carry that learned preference into adulthood, so no wonder the taste of plain fresh fruit, or the subtle sweetness of a carrot is considered bland or tasteless.  You can’t even find plain water anymore — now it’s all pimped up with artificial sweeteners.

How did this happen?  Certain nutrition advocates, such as Marion Nestle in her new book Why Calories Count, suggest that agriculture policies that encourage crop production, combined with corporate goals of maximizing sales have led to an explosion of portion sizes and available calories, especially from corn sweeteners.  I heard another interesting theory this week, from nutrition anthropologist Deborah Duchon, in a story on National Public Radio on the history of pie.  Why is it that pies, or desserts in general, are so treacly sweet in the US?  According to Duchon, the transition started because of Prohibition.  Companies that had made money selling beer and liquor had to find something else to make.  They started making soft drinks, full of sugar.  And people started drinking soft drinks because they didn’t have any alternatives.  Voila – hooked on sugar.  We became a nation of sugar addicts instead of drunks.

Well, it’s a plausible theory and can be tied in to the current conspiracy theories about how Big Food and Big Agribusiness is causing obesity.  I’m more inclined to think the abundance of calories is caused by companies competing with each other to attract customers.  People like value.  So if one company sells 16 oz soft drinks, another is going to start selling 24 oz.  And pretty soon you’ve got 64 oz soft drinks, triple bacon cheese burgers and super sized fries.

These days, “value” means excess calories, rather than higher quality.  What’s the solution?  Misguided taxes and heavy-handed regulations of portion sizes, sodium or fat content aren’t going to work.  Certainly companies can start offering smaller portions that don’t come at a price.  In other words, the 8 oz drink should cost half what the 16 oz drink costs, not 90%.  When you charge $1 for 8 oz and $1.20 for 16 oz, people are going to buy value every time, even if they realize they don’t need all that extra food or beverage.  Should we put the blame for this mess on the people who passed Prohibition?  Think about it this way: other countries never enacted Prohibition and other countries don’t have an obesity epidemic or a population-wide addiction to extremely sweet tastes.

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