Sugar Remains in the Spotlight

By Michael Fernandez, Senior Fellow, GW Sustainability Collaborative

Anyone who thinks the recent defeat of the soda tax proposal in Santa Fe signals a fundamental change in direction is missing the bigger picture.

The defeat of a ballot initiative in Santa Fe, New Mexico may have ended the recent string of local “soda tax” victories across the country, but it doesn’t signal the end of the intense, world-wide scrutiny on sugar sweetened beverages and high sugar foods.  The Santa Fe two-cents-per-ounce tax proposal, which would have supported expanding pre-K education, was soundly defeated after a hard fought campaign in which opponents and proponents together spent more than $3 million, most coming from outside sources like the soda industry and philanthropist and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.  This loss followed a string of approved initiatives including in Berkeley, CA,; Boulder, CO;  Philadelphia, PA and Cook County, IL (which includes Chicago), and soda tax proposals are under discussion in Seattle, WA and the state of Massachusetts.

Regardless of the fate of these specific US initiatives, though, the focus on sugar will continue – it is a global phenomenon, driven by mounting scientific evidence and public concern, and it isn’t limited to soda taxes.  Following a public consultation and peer review process, in early 2014 the World Health Organization issued a “strong recommendation” that people limit their consumption of added or ‘free sugars’ to no more than 10% of their daily calorie intake.  This translates to about 50g of sugar, or about 12 teaspoons, per day for the average adult.  By way of comparison, a single can of sugar sweetened soda contains about 40g (or 10 teaspoons) of sugar.

The WHO recommendation jump-started a worldwide review of sugar policies, with a strong focus on sugar sweetened beverages as a major contributor to added sugar consumption around the globe.  Mexico imposed a tax on sugar sweetened beverages in 2014 (also accompanied by  tax on high fat, salt and sugar containing foods), and last month the UK Parliament approved a Finance Bill that includes a sugary drinks tax that will go into effect in 2018.  Interestingly, Action on Sugar, a prominent UK anti-sugar activist organization, is already calling for the tax to be extended to chocolates and other sugary confectionary.

In the US, the public policy focus on sugar has gone beyond taxes.  In May of 2016, the FDA finalized a series of changes to the Nutrition Facts Panel found on packaged foods and beverages, which for the first time will include a separate line for added sugars.  While some in the food industry have urged the Trump administration to slow down implementation of the changes, and new FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb signaled willingness to consider a delay during his confirmation hearing, the new labels are currently scheduled to go into effect in 2018.  There is also a lively and ongoing public debate about restricting the use of SNAP funds (more commonly known as ‘food stamps’) to purchase sugar sweetened beverages.  Several states have explored SNAP limitations and this issue will almost certainly be part of the debate as Congress considers modifications to the SNAP program during the upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization process.

It’s not just government policymakers that are driving the debate – retailers and food companies are beginning to respond to consumer interest and pubic pressure, regardless of government action.  In April, pharmacy giant CVS announced that it would begin removing candy from the check-out areas in its stores, in line with a greater focus on supporting customer health and wellness and under “the same guiding principles that led to the removal of tobacco.”  And as highlighted in a previous Food Institute commentary, the work of the GW Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness Director Dr. William Dietz and other physician advocates is prompting hospitals and clinics around the country to revamp cafeteria menus and vending machine offerings to ban sugary drinks and other “junk food.”

But it’s not just healthcare providers who are making a shift.  In March of this year, Panera Bread Co. announced that it would begin to rollout added sugar labels on all self-serve fountain beverages in its stores, part of a broader initiative to make healthier menu options more accessible to customers.  And while the largest group representing US food companies, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, opposed the new added sugar label, a handful of leading food companies broke with the rest of the industry and supported the proposal.  In fact, a senior executive at Mars, one of the companies that supported the proposal, recently encouraged “speeding up implementation of added sugar labeling in the United States” to set a global precedent.  Finally, a group of candy companies that make up about half of the sector in the US just announced a series of commitments to encourage responsible consumption, including commitments around portion size reduction and front of pack labeling, as part of their efforts to help consumers meet the WHO sugar guidelines.

These companies, and others like them, recognize that the global focus on sugar consumption isn’t going away and that they need to adjust if they want to stay relevant for their consumers.  Anyone who thinks the recent defeat of the soda tax proposal in Santa Fe signals a fundamental change in direction is missing the bigger picture.