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Minnesota’s sugar pushers

Caloric sweeteners of one kind or another “are added to 80 percent of the 600,000 food products available in the U.S.”

In a compelling commentary published in the Star Tribune Sunday, Rochester-based health writer Paul John Scott makes the argument that Minnesota, through its economic connections to sugar, “has done as much as, if not more than, any other state to foster the global diabetes epidemic.”

In fact, Minnesota is to sugar as Kentucky is to tobacco, he says.

 As Scott, who recently became the health reporter for the Rochester Post-Bulletin, points out, “sugar is on the way out, and its stock is diving just as many other forbidden foods [such as eggs, butter and bacon] are being rehabilitated.”

Also on its way out is that old “calories in, calories out” meme, which Big Food uses to misdirect us, says Scott. (See the documentary “Fed Up,” for details, he adds.)

Just how far sugar’s stock has fallen was illustrated last February, when the advisory committee for the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommended that Americans curtail their sugar consumption to no more than 10 percent of their daily calories, or about 12 teaspoons daily for adults.

In March, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a similar health advisory about sugar, although its experts said that limiting sugar intake to less than 5 percent of total daily calories (6 teaspoons daily) would be even better for people’s health.

A threat to the bottom line

The U.S. advisory committee also recommended that “added sugars” be explained in easy-to-understand terms (teaspoons) on food labels.

That has Big Food very, very worried, for, as Scott points out, caloric sweeteners of one kind or another “are added to 80 percent of the 600,000 food products available in the U.S.”

“If we eat anything with a label we simply have to eat sugar,” he explains. “Bread, salad dressing, ketchup, frozen food — under one of its 56 names, sugar is in everything.”

So anything that encourages people to eat less sugar — and, heaven forbid, figure out how much sugar is in the processed food they’re purchasing — will hurt the bottom line of the food industry.

And then there’s the growing worldwide movement to tax sugary products — a movement, by the way, driven by economics as well as by health concerns. As Scott notes, earlier this year economists at Morgan Stanley issued a report (“The Bitter Aftertaste of Sugar”) that calculated how sugar — as a driver of the global diabetes epidemic — would negatively impact (through such factors as premature deaths and lower productivity) the workforces of various countries, particularly in the United States.

“The investment house said that if 20-year projections prove true, the economic future looked brightest in economies eating the lowest-sugar diets: Italy, France, Switzerland, Japan and Korea,” writes Scott. “Credit Suisse released a similar report in 2013, calling for taxation on sugary foods and drinks. Again, these aren’t the worries of the food police; they are coming from people who work late and eat General Tso’s chicken at their desk.”

The impact on Minnesota

So why should these developments be of particular concern to Minnesota. 

“We may not be the home of Coke or PepsiCo,” writes Scott, “but a host of examples suggest that if sugar is the new tobacco, Minnesota is the new Kentucky.”

Consider Cargill. In 2014, the global commodities behemoth announced an alliance with the Brazilian firm Copersucar, otherwise known as the world’s largest sugar trader. The ensuing company was named Alvean, for “movement of white,” and plans to coordinate the production and transport of raw sugar from ports and factories across the globe. The global sugar trade is 60 million tons. …

Out in Golden Valley, General Mills is also dependent on the sale of sugar. (Sweetened products make up nearly one-fifth of its line, according to Morgan Stanley.) With its cereals, yogurts and prepared foods, the company has recently been paying for our “changes in eating habits,” to use the corporate euphemism (another way of putting it: our “desire for survival”). The company recently shed 800 jobs, joining the retrenching underway at Kellogg’s (2,000 jobs), Coke (3,900 jobs) and Pepsi (8,700 jobs). …

American Crystal Sugar and Minnesota beet and corn growers are in for a surprise when sugar becomes Public Enemy No. 1. With 24,000 sugar workers, Minnesota employs more people growing and making the stuff than does any other state; in the Red River Valley, beets pump $3 billion into the local economy.

Thanks to the farm bill, Minnesota plants more than 8 million acres with corn, a portion of which help flood the zone with cheap high-fructose corn syrup, a demonized ingredient that is arguably no worse than sugar, but surely no better, either. When diabetes spreads like the plague over the land, you have to figure those subsidies will be the first thing to go.

As for beets, we prop up their price with legislative heroics (U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken made sure of that in 2013). Price supports arguably keep sugar prices high, so their health consequences are limited, but they also prolong our dependency on a crop that will soon face tax penalties, label warnings, policy punishments and declining public favor.

The U of M, too

And then, adds Scott, there’s the University of Minnesota, “home to an influential if less-well-known Minnesota link to sugar — the food-industry-funded Department of Nutrition and Food Science” (with its General Mills Endowed Chair of Cereal Technology).

“If you are wondering why we are just now seeing the advice to include ‘added sugars’ and upper limits for sugar on the Nutrition Facts panel,” writes Scott, “it’s thanks in part to the fact that the last time the [advisory committee] met, a food-industry-funded U nutritionist, Joanne Slavin, led the committee in charge of surveying the science on sugar. In keeping with the industry-preferred position, she views sugar as a ‘discretionary calorie’ but no more harmful than any other calorie. The notion of sugar causing diabetes seemed to be off her committee’s radar entirely.”

You can read Scott’s commentary on the Star Tribune’s website.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/27/2015 - 12:37 pm.

    Settled Science?

    So in five years we will have another article saying that sugar is not the sole cause for all that ails mankind?

  2. Submitted by Lora Jones on 04/27/2015 - 03:00 pm.

    Settled science

    after 5 years did we see an article saying tobacco is not the sole cause for all that ails mankind?

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/27/2015 - 03:32 pm.

    Big Food

    Seriously, can we try to be a bit journalistic about this? It’s one thing to quote someone (who is, by the way, a journalist, not a doctor or scientist), but to include the term “Big Food” without quotation marks as though it’s not a politically charged, slang term is ridiculous. Also, yes, sugar is A driver of diabetes, but lots of other factors play in, all of which are ignored here in the name of blaming someone else. The American Diabetes Foundation lists SIX modifiable risk factors, only 1 of which is blood glucose level (which arguably may be an effect as much as a cause of diabetes). See their website:

    Seriously, when will “journalists” recognize that a lot of the finger pointing is a way to sell books and articles, not a way to actually help the public make better choices.

    Yes, I work for “Big Food,” but I spent nearly 10 years getting an education in health related scientific areas. In the end, we all make choices, and we need to be better about making better choices. “Big Food” and “Fast Food” didn’t make the world fat. For the most part, choosing to eat too much and move to little did. While there may be confounding factors (genetics, gut microflora, etc.), the answer is to choose better and move more.

    • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 04/28/2015 - 12:03 pm.

      Good journalism trumps corporate pr

      Ms. Kahler is surely correct that wiser health choices overall are needed by most people. One of those health choices however could very well be ditching most processed foods, like that made, for instance, by General Mills.

      Adults can make choices for themselves, even though savvy marketing, advertising, and food design can compromise consumer decision making. Indeed, considerable research is undertaken to determine how to influence consumer choice.

      But when slick advertising is put into the service of trying to manipulate children, we’ve reached one of the sleazy lows of corporate America.

      Enter General Mills.

      Consider the following recent history. In 2009 Congress appointed various child health and nutrition experts to establish guidelines for advertising foods to children. In 2011 the report came out:

      “The guidelines said that foods advertised to children must provide “a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet.” For example, any food marketed to children must “contain at least 50% by weight one or more of the following: fruit; vegetable; whole grain; fat-free or low-fat milk or yogurt; fish; extra lean meat or poultry; eggs; nuts and seeds; or beans.”

      Smarter eating choices and greater public health could threaten profits. Involve those pesky child nutrition and health experts, and who knows how much shareholder value and executive compensation could cost General Mills and other companies. Knowing that children’s health can’t possibly ever be a higher priority than their paychecks, General Mills officials mounted a response. You can read more here:

      This is, of course, far from the first time that the food giants have tried to corrupt public health. Just as tobacco companies have tried to neutralize global attempts to limit tobacco, big food has put heavy pressure on the World Health Organization to alter and corrupt its dietary guidelines. In 2003 corporate lobbyists succeeded in killing science based guidelines on sugar intake, a big middle finger to the American and world publics concerned about advancing public health.

      One of the trade groups involved in this assault on public health was the US Council for International Business. It’s 2013-2014 annual report lists General Mills as a member. (I was unable to discover whether G.M. was a supporting member of the US Council during this time or not.)

      General Mills knows that if it can get its advertising and products in front of children, it will preserve its market share. This is why is “has been accused of misleading advertising around the sugar in its products and has sought to influence school nutrition standards on sugar intake.”

      The bottom line is this. If we’re to address the deadly serious problems of overweight and diabetes and other health problems here and globally we have to imagine and plan for a world, legally, educationally, agriculturally, and policy-wise, it’s an open question as to whether big food companies like General Mills have much of any place in it.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/29/2015 - 01:06 pm.

        Second Opinion

        Do parents not have a say in what ends up in their grocery baskets?

        I recognize that this column does not claim to be journalistic, but MinnPost does. The use of the term Big Food (not to mention the title of the article) is not terribly journalistic and is editorializing the content. The first two opinion blogs you provide are written by the same freelance writer, and do not provide much in the way of science based facts regardless of where it was published, mostly just outrage about lobbying dollars. As for the Union of Concerned Scientists, it places its bets on a lot of popular positions. While they’re in the position to look at the science, they often don’t (take a look on their position on GMOs, which has a lot more scientific evidence as being safe than not; but they’re happy to take a donation at the bottom of their informational page). Probably because popular positions are more likely to bring in donations, which pays paychecks of board members and lobbyists.

        While I agree that companies should not make health claims in the face of strong evidence to the contrary (e.g., the “healthy” cigarettes of the 50’s), I also believe that consumer choice goes both ways. Most companies work hard to give consumers what they want. Companies should be good stewards in providing what the consumer wants. But, in the end, the effects of products on the consumer are generally known to the consumer or should be known to the consumer. At no point in my life did I ever believe that a McDonald’s burger or fries was good for me, especially as a sole source of sustenance. Yet, on occasion, I eat it. That is my choice and I should be responsible for the consequences. While there would be reason to believe that most children don’t know better, and that McDonald’s advertises to children by having Happy Meals with toys in them, there is little reason to expect that children are responsible for purchasing their own food.

  4. Submitted by Bradley Bolin on 04/27/2015 - 04:27 pm.

    Ancel Keys

    This doesn’t even mention the U’s Ancel Keys, who started us down this road to the demonization of fat and cholesterol. Which is now pretty much totally discredited.

  5. Submitted by Rick Notch on 04/28/2015 - 09:38 am.

    That photo reminds me…

    Time to go to Cub and get more Lucky Charms.

  6. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 04/28/2015 - 12:15 pm.

    Re: Ancel Keys

    Dr. Keys wrote in 1952 that dietary cholesterol is not of concern in human beings. I would be more careful before claiming his work is debunked. If you don’t believe me, here is his article in the journal Circulation:

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