Opinion

RENÉE LOTH

The bitter truth about sugar

A new report by the US Department of Agriculture has found that families receiving food stamps spend more on sugary soft drinks than any other grocery item. This has predictably led to renewed calls to ban the purchase of soda, candy, or other nutritional no-nos using food stamps. Governor Paul LePage of Maine, no fan of the federal nutrition program to begin with, complained to then-Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in June that “billions of taxpayer dollars finance a steady diet of Mars Bars and Mountain Dew.” Now Maine joins Tennessee, Arkansas, and other mostly conservative states requesting federal waivers to put certain foods off limits to food stamp recipients.

It’s maddening that the same people who rail against “nanny state” government regulations have no compunction about telling poor people how to run their lives. Banning plastic water bottles or all-terrain vehicles is a slam against freedom, but telling Americans who depend on safety-net programs that they can’t eat ice cream or chocolate because they are supported by taxpayer dollars — that’s fair game.

Still, the over-consumption of sweetened soft drinks and other junk foods is clearly unhealthy, contributing to obesity, diabetes, and any number of other costly chronic illnesses. Many of the same states that want to place restrictions on food stamp purchases have higher than average rates of obesity: Arkansas has a 34 percent obesity rate, sixth worst in the country. But the poor aren’t the only ones chasing after empty calories. The same USDA report found that non-food-stamp households made the very same unhealthy choices. “Across all households, more money was spent on soft drinks than any other item,” concluded the report, which analyzed purchases from 26 million households. Both groups were also equally likely to purchase other sweets like cookies and ice cream.

Sugar is cheap, addictive, and ubiquitous — even salty packaged foods include sugar. It’s unlikely that disqualifying sugary items from the food stamp program will stop people from consuming them. A 12-pack of 12-ounce Pepsi cans was on sale this month at Star Market for just over $3 (about 2 cents per ounce), while an off-brand of orange juice at the same store cost 5 cents per ounce. Milk is even more expensive.

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Taxing soda to make other, healthier options more competitive is one approach to reducing consumption, but it’s unwieldy. On Jan. 1, Philadelphia began assessing beverage distributors (and thus consumers) an extra 1.5 cents per ounce; in Massachusetts, an effort to remove the sales tax exemption from sugary foods faltered on the complex shoals of defining what constitutes
“unhealthy.” And price signals need to be significant to alter behavior; cigarette taxes started making a serious dent in consumption when they reached a dollar a pack.

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The real culprit in this drama is Big Sugar — a vast, diverse industry that consistently opposes regulation of its product, whether it’s taxes, nutrition labels, or restrictions in the food stamp program. According to “The Case Against Sugar,” an eye-opening new book by Gary Taubes, sugar and related industry associations have used Big Tobacco-style tactics over the years to pay off medical researchers, lobby Congress and international health organizations, and manipulate public opinion. As a result, nutrition science directly connecting added sugar to our modern litany of illness is still murky, though the evidence is mounting.

The one clear benefit of taxing soda is that it can raise enough revenue to fund a public education program to combat the propaganda resources of Big Sugar. Instead of poor-shaming people for unhealthy habits, why not offer families a living wage, provide real-food choices in struggling neighborhoods, and require Big Sugar to tell the whole truth about its products? That would be sweet.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.