A month after the U.S. medical community officially labeled obesity a disease, government officials are raising eyebrows by stepping in to prop up the U.S. sugar industry, the same group that profits from the Twinkies and Ho Hos that slide so frequently and easily down American gullets.
In June, the American Medical Association deemed obesity a disease, stirring up controversy among those who questioned the legitimacy of creating the new diagnosis.
“Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans,” Patrice Harris, an American Medical Association board member, told the New Jersey Star Ledger. “The AMA is committed to improving health outcomes and is working to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, which are often linked to obesity.”
According to the association, 36 percent of American adults are overweight or obese. Leaders in the health industry predict that if the issue isn’t addressed, half of Americans could fall into that category by 2040.
Skeptics claim that labeling obesity a “disease” will rid citizens of a sense of personal responsibility for their weight. But the American Medical Association and its supporters point to dramatic health-related conditions that cause or severely limit a person’s ability to lose weight.
The USDA affair with sugar
Meanwhile, as the obesity debate played out, the federal government announced it would intervene in the sugar market, purchasing $38 million in sugar. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will then sell the sugar back into the market in exchange for import credits, limiting the amount of sugar that can be brought into the United States from foreign countries.
The issue lies in a surplus of sugar supplies, which is driving down the cost of the product at the expense of U.S. sugar growers. For U.S. sugar beet and sugarcane farmers, the low cost could lead them to walk away from their crops, in accordance with the terms of their USDA loans.
This would let farmers off the hook for paying back the loans with cash. In that scenario, the federal government — and taxpayers — would be stuck with an even bigger price tag.
In total, U.S. sugar farmers have up to $800 million in federal loans from the USDA.
According to a statement submitted by the Coalition for Sugar Reform to the Star Tribune, the “USDA is doing all that is possible to help stave off the very real taxpayer costs that are coming down the pike as a result of the outdated U.S. sugar program.”
Others are suggesting the USDA has a double standard. While buying up sugar supplies that will inevitably find their way into the market, the department is also in charge of regulating the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP or food stamps, which helps low-income families afford groceries.
According to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, food stamp recipients spend $2 billion on sugary drinks every year. That really means the USDA spends $2 billion on sugar drinks purchased in grocery stores, according to the study’s authors.
“SNAP benefits are critically important to helping low-income families put food on the table, and in this economy, many American families could not feed their children without the federal food assistance provided by SNAP,” Tatiana Andreyeva, the lead author, told Yale News. “At the same time, the annual use of billions of dollars in SNAP benefits to purchase products at the core of public health concerns about obesity and chronic illnesses is misaligned with the goal of helping economically vulnerable families live active, healthy lives.”
When the American Medical Association declared obesity a disease, it called for the rollback of sugar in American products, including those that are given to low-income families through government assistance programs like food stamps.
“The AMA is working to improve the nation’s health care outcomes, particularly cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which are often linked to obesity,” AMA President Ardis Hoven said. “Removing sugar-sweetened beverages from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will help encourage healthier beverage choices.”
Does America really need all that sugar?
Americans love sugar — and there’s plenty of it to go around.
According to the USDA, sugar production expanded from an average of 6 million short tons in the 1980s to 8.1 million short tons in the 2000s.
Sugar production in the U.S. comes from two main crops: sugarcane and sugar beets. Sugarcane production, which typically takes place in warmer climates like Florida, Louisiana and Hawaii, rose from an average of 704,000 acres in the early 1980s to 898,000 acres in the 2000s, according to the USDA.
Sugar beet production has grown from 18.6 short tons per acre in 1993 to 26 tons per acre in 2009, according to the USDA. Sugar beets are commonly grown up north, with Minnesota taking the cake as the largest producer.
According to Online Nursing Programs, an educational organization, Americans consume roughly 3 pounds of sugar each week, which equates to 156 pounds each year and an estimated 3,550 pounds in a person’s lifetime.
American Crystal Sugar, the nation’s largest sugar supplier, disputes those findings.
“Using information from a 2001 report as illustration, a general statement like ‘Americans consume more than 150 pounds of sugar in a year’ is not only thoroughly misleading, it is completely wrong. such false assertions perpetuate the myth that ‘Americans eat too much sugar,’” the company states on its website.
Regardless of the dispute, the AMA is standing by its claim that Americans do, perhaps, consume too much sugar.
The information provided by Online Nursing Programs identified the main “culprits” for high sugar content. Soft drinks top the list, but they’re joined by milk and “other grains,” sources of sugar that many Americans don’t even consider.
At the heart of this issue is concern over the link between high rates of sugar consumption and obesity.
That link is seen as a catalyst for diabetes, a disease that can have devastating consequences, including loss of eyesight, limbs, kidney failure and, ultimately, death. Type 2 Diabetes is also considered the leading cause of heart disease, a disease that also can be fatal.
Copious consumption of sugar is directly related to Type 2 Diabetes, which is why it’s at the forefront of the American Medical Association’s campaign to get Americans healthier by cutting down on the product that is so prevalent in American food and beverages.
“From a public policy perspective this … should help to convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture to redefine guidelines for sugar consumption, especially in soft drinks,” Dr. Caroline Apovian wrote in a 2005 study published by the association.
What remains to be seen is how the USDA will balance its involvement in the sugar industry — both on the supply end on the production end.