Should The Government Regulate Sugar Like Tobacco?

It has many of the same qualities as heavily controlled substances, but we freely add it to everything (it’s even on the FDA’s list of things that you can safely add to any food, in any amount). Is it time to put the sugary snacks behind the counter at the corner store?

Should The Government Regulate Sugar Like Tobacco?

Sugar has a lot in common with tobacco and alcohol: it triggers pleasurable feelings, it can cause health problems when overused, and it’s addictive (though the jury may still be out on that one). Unlike the latter two substances, sugar products don’t come with added taxes or any barrier to obtaining them. Anyone can legally binge on sugar, regardless of age. But maybe this shouldn’t be the case. Maybe we’d all be better off if sugar was treated like a potentially dangerous substance.

Image by FAO

Scientists at UCSF argue in a recent issue of Nature that added sugars, defined as “any sweetener containing the molecule fructose that is added to food in processing,” should be regulated by the government. The researchers, one of whom is well-known for his views on the dangers of sugar, have come up with a convincing list of reasons why we need to take serious measures:

  • Sugar can induce hypertension, insulin resistance, high triglycerides, diabetes, and potentially liver problems that mimic the effects of alcohol.
  • Like tobacco and alcohol, sugar has a negative impact on society. The U.S. shells out $150 billion on health care and $65 billion in lost productivity each year because of health issues associated with metabolic syndrome, a group of diseases including diabetes, hypertension, lipid problems, and cardiovascular disease. A striking 25% of military applicants are now rejected because of obesity.
  • Sugar has become unavoidable. Added sugar (non-naturally occurring sugar) consumption has tripled worldwide over the past 50 years. This is not a good thing–in many areas of the world, people consume 500 calories a day from added sugars alone.
  • Sugar can be abused. It dampens the suppression of ghrelin (a hormone that signals hunger to the brain), and scrambles signals and transport of leptin, a hormone that produces a feeling of fullness. Sugar also cuts down on dopamine signaling, leading to a decrease in pleasure from food consumption. That compels people to eat even more.

You can’t talk about a food product without a meddlesome trade association getting involved. In this case, the Sugar Association has issued a statement about the Nature piece. The group claims that the obesity epidemic has grown as sugar and beet consumption have decreased, and that consumption of the sweetener over the past 50 years has not increased as drastically as claimed.

“There is an obesity problem in our country that can lead to the very serious health issues mentioned in the comment–but it originates from the combination of overconsumption of all foods and lack of exercise,” the organization writes. “To label a single food as the one and only problem misinforms, misleads and confuses consumers, and simply adds to the problem.”

That last point has some merit. Oftentimes, the kinds of foods that contain large amounts of added sugars–the packaged snack foods that so many people eat throughout the day–aren’t exactly healthy to begin with. So why focus on just one potentially harmful ingredient?

The answer is that sugar is stealthy. It’s added to bread, seemingly healthy cereals, and other processed foods that might not automatically be filed under the “junk food” category. Even the most diligent consumers will be walloped with a sugar sneak attack every once in awhile.

So the UCSF researchers argue that sugar needs to be strongly regulated. Among their suggestions: impose a sugar tax, limit sales during school hours, don’t allow children to buy sugary drinks, remove soft drinks from the food stamp program, and cut fructose from the FDA’s Generally Regarded as Safe list of ingredients that can be added in unlimited amounts to foods.


These are decent ideas in theory. But whether any of them could survive lobbying by the numerous trade industries that want us to eat boatloads of sugar–as well as protesting from sugar-loving consumers–is doubtful.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.