In The Cart: The First Lady, Wal-Mart, Sugar
Michelle Obama has been anything but sequestered this week. First, she and Jimmy Fallon-in-drag showed off their “mom dancing” moves to celebrate the third anniversary of her Let’s Move initiative Friday night. Then she presented the Best Picture award to “Argo” on the Academy Award telecast. This morning, she makes “The Business Case For Healthier Food Options” in the opinions section of the Wall Street Journal.
The subhed says all that some people need to hear: “In recent years, they have generated more than 70% of the growth in sales for packaged-goods companies.” Wal-Mart, an early supporter of the first lady’s nutrition initiatives, is singled out along with Disney, which banned junk food ads on its programming and improved the meals at its theme parks.
“In just the past two years, [Wal-Mart] reports that it has cut the costs to its consumers of fruits and vegetables by $2.3 billion and reduced the amount of sugar in its products by 10%,” Obama writes. “Wal-Mart has also opened 86 new stores in underserved communities and launched a labeling program that helps customers spot healthy items on the shelf.”
That’s led to increased sales and better relationships, she writes, with no reference to the fact that the retailer –- and the economy in general -- needs all the help it can get. Reducing the amount of sugar in the processed foods it sells, however, may prove to be the most significant initiative it has undertaken if you consider a study published yesterday in the journal PLoS One that links increased sugar in a population’s food supply to higher diabetes rates independent of rates of obesity.
“In other words, according to this study, obesity doesn’t cause diabetes: sugar does,” writes Mark Bittman on the op-ed pages of the New York Times this morning, “The study demonstrates this with the same level of confidence that linked cigarettes and lung cancer in the 1960s.”
The study’s lead author, long-time sugar critic Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at University of California, San Francisco’s Benioff Children’s Hospital, tells Bittman: “This study is proof enough that sugar is toxic. Now it’s time to do something about it.”
That means, Bittman suggests, that the Food and Drug Administration should re-evaluate the toxicity of sugar and arrive at a daily value –- “how much added sugar is safe?” – as well as remove fructose from the “generally recognized as safe” list.
There’s a caveat here. “While the study doesn’t prove sugar causes diabetes directly, it shows that the longer a population was exposed to high levels of sugar, the higher its diabetes rate was after the researchers subtracted out other influences, such as physical activity,” Bloomberg’s Elizabeth Lopatto points out.
And some of Lustig’s medical colleagues are not quite as convinced as Bittman that the evidence is conclusive. For one, Elizabeth Seaquist, the president-elect of medicine and science for the American Diabetes Association, tells Lopatto that more work needs to be done. “It raises as many questions as it solves,” Seaquist says. “There are so many limitations, trying to understand the source of the data. But the study does help us know this is a question worth pursuing.”
Seaquist is a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, where she holds the Pennock Family Chair in Diabetes Research.
Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, allows that the study adds evidence to the need for people to cut down on their sugar consumption but cautions that the databases used in the study are “notoriously unreliable,” and she calls for more research “to examine links between types of foods and obesity.”
Blogging on Huffington Post, Lustig asks the question: “Still Believe 'A Calorie Is a Calorie'?” It’s a rhetorical query, as you might expect, and “physicians and politicians who cling to the dogma that ‘all calories should be treated equally’ imperil our country's health care system, food supply and standing in the world for the next hundred years.”
Sugar is the “big kahuna” of the “big lie,” he writes, pointing out that it consists of two chemicals -– glucose and fructose. The former is good, “the energy of life.” Frustose, the very sweet stuff we crave, “is an entirely different animal,” he says.
Lustig has been making the case that sugar “is far from just ‘empty calories’ that make people fat” for years. “At the levels consumed by most Americans, sugar changes metabolism, raises blood pressure, critically alters the signaling of hormones and causes significant damage to the liver -- the least understood of sugar’s damages,” he argued in Nature last year.
Without directly addressing the new study, the Sugar Association maintains “sugars (all caloric sweeteners) contribution to increased caloric intake is being overstated.”