TIME health

How Sugar Went From a Condiment to a Diet Staple

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Jessica Key—Getty Images

More and more Americans' meals resemble dessert, and Congress is to blame for our collective national stomachache.

School cafeterias have been under siege for three decades, ever since Ronald Reagan declared ketchup to be a vegetable. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed by Congress in 2010 raised the national per-pupil lunch expenditure from $2.80 to $2.86. But this increase wasn’t enough to allow school cafeterias to subsist on their own—much less cover the cost of a carrot. Instead of upping the amount, last week Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) and the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations decided to gut their own the ridiculously low bar by allowing schools to “opt-out” of the federal nutrition standards. This will no doubt start to roll back the nutrition standards for all schools, which Congress expects will culminate in the No Hungry Kids Act, currently winding its way through the House. We might as well call this the “Dessert for Lunch Act.”

Why did Congress engage in this schizophrenic exercise? Because the American Legislative and Exchange Council, a lobbying group for the food and drug industries, makes campaign contributions to 338 of 535 members of Congress. The documentary movie Fed Up (full disclosure: I’m in it) is an exposé of how the food industry has undermined the American diet to foment a pandemic of obesity and diabetes, all in the name of profit—and how the U.S. Congress has aided and abetted the industry at every turn. As an example, Congress one-upped Reagan by declaring that pizza is now a vegetable.

But dessert for lunch (and breakfast) has ramifications. We’ve already witnessed the medical devastation driven by our current sugar glut. In 1977, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, led by Senator George McGovern, issued the first dietary recommendations for Americans, which espoused the low-fat hypothesis. But the food tasted like cardboard; so the low-fat diet inadvertently begat a high-sugar diet. Since then, childhood obesity rates have increased from 5% to 30%, children developed type 2 diabetes (never seen before) and doctors discovered a new entity, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, now prevalent in one-seventh of all American children. At the same time, academic test scores fell, behavior problems and the need for medicationincreased, and spending on health care rose from 9.0% of our GDP in 1980 to 17.2% today. More people are shuttled through the medical system every day, and 75% percent of healthcare dollars are spent on preventable diseases that are either caused by or related to sugar consumption. If we don’t acknowledge and aggressively address the inherent connection between “all dessert, all the time” and the medical, social and economic devolution we currently face, America will find itself fat, stupid, and broke.

Don’t get me wrong. We all love dessert. How could you not? Dessert is the reward we look forward to for finishing our lima beans. Liking sweet on our tongue is programmed into our DNA. Sweet was the signal to our ancestors that a foodstuff was safe to eat, because there are no foods that are both sweet and acutely poisonous.

Sugar used to be a condiment, but now it’s a diet staple. Soda, juice, sweetened coconut water, sweetened teas, Frappuccinos—these are all desserts. Foods with added sugar are dessert if any form of sugar is one of the first three ingredients. Granola is dessert. Fruit-flavored yogurt is dessert. Chinese chicken salad is dessert. The American Heart Association limits kids to 4 teaspoons, and adults to 6-9 teaspoons, of added sugar per day. Yet a typical school breakfast consists of a bowl of Froot Loops and a glass of orange juice. That’s 11 teaspoons of added sugar! The program also serves 1% chocolate milk, which has 4 teaspoons of added sugar, a child’s entire limit for the day. Thirty-nine percent of our children eat school lunch every day, and 25% eat school breakfast, as part of the National School Lunch Program. Should kids really be eating dessert for breakfast?

While dessert captivates our brain’s reward center, our taste for it is leading to a tidal wave of chronic diseases – diseases so nefarious and insidious that our healthcare system isn’t prepared for the flood of children with type 2 diabetes and liver disease who will be sick for decades and are already clogging up our healthcare system. And we know that sugar stimulates the reward center of the brain, similar to drugs, which of course is why the food industry puts it in virtually all processed foods—to get you to buy more.

I like dessert—for dessert. Dessert should be safe, and rare. But just like on Halloween, overdoing it has predictable consequences: a huge tummy ache. The same goes for the food industry overdoing it with lobbying money in Congress: that’s why we’ve got one hell of a national tummy ache.

Robert H. Lustig, M.D., M.S.L. is Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, and the President of the Institute for Responsible Nutrition, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the global food supply, and eradicating type 2 diabetes in children. He is the author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, Sugar Has 56 Names: A Shoppers Guide, and The Fat Chance Cookbook.

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