Big Sugar and Us

Treating sugar-related disease costs the U.S. billions of dollars a year. So why do we subsidize sugar farmers and resist sugar taxes?

Five Figures to Consider

6 teaspoons (24 grams) is AHA’s recommended daily limit on added sugar for women (9 teaspoons for men)
17 teaspoons (68 grams) is the average amount of added sugar an American consumes each day
8 teaspoons (27 grams) of added sugar in an 8.4-ounce can of Red Bull, 9 3/4 teaspoons (39 grams) in a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola
74% of packaged foods contain added sugar under 61 different names
$2.4-$4 billion annual cost of protections of U.S. sugar producers

It’s been a sweet year for Big Sugar. Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and the American Beverage Association beat back sugary drink taxes and their proponents in California, Arizona and Washington. The American Sugar Alliance succeeded in retaining protections for sugar producers in the 2018 Farm Bill. And the USDA is allowing chocolate milk back into school cafeterias. Who are the losers? All of us. Every American pays the price for the increase in coronary heart disease, type II diabetes, obesity, metabolic disorders, liver disease and cancers linked to our expanding waistlines and excessive sugar consumption.

The average American consumes 17 teaspoons (68 grams) of added sugar a day. That’s nearly three times the recommended limit for women (6 teaspoons) and twice the limit (9 teaspoons) for men, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Even worse are the diets of American adolescents, who consume nearly four times as much added sugar as the AHA recommended limit. What are the health consequences? We now spend more money treating type II diabetes ($140 billion) than tobacco-related illnesses ($90 billion.) Our healthcare spending on obesity is even higher ($147 billion.)  And non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which is associated with excessive fructose consumption, is now the fastest growing cause of liver transplant demand in the U.S. It is estimated that 45% of Latinos, 33% of Caucasians and 24% of African-Americans have NAFLD.

It might come as a surprise that we subsidize the sugar producers whose crops are killing us. Yes, we eat the poison, and we pay for the privilege. The American Enterprise Institute estimates the annual cost of our “Stalinist” sugar program is $2.4-$4 billion. That cost comes in the form of price support loans to farmers, limits on sugar imports and agreements to buy excess sugar production for ethanol production. The result is a wealth transfer concentrated among large farmers and sugar prices higher than the world average, making sugar farming more lucrative than it would otherwise be. Yes, we need farmers, but why not incentivize them to grow fruits and vegetables instead of sugar beets and sugarcane? The USDA recommends that 50% of our plate at a meal be filled with fruits and vegetables, yet only 1% of farm subsidies go to the growers of those crops. Almost of our sugar supply goes into sweetened drinks, the largest source of added sugar in the American diet. Consider that one 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola contains 9 3/4 teaspoons (39 grams) of added sugar, and an 8.4 ounce can of Red Bull contains 6 3/4 teaspoons (27 grams.) Drinking just one soda per day increases a person’s risk of developing diabetes by 26% and of becoming overweight by 55%.

The federal government also supports Big Sugar in our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a $147 billion food assistance program that covers spending on sugar-sweetened drinks, candy and all the high-sugar processed food that lurks on grocery store shelves. Sugar is an ingredient in 74% of packaged foods and goes by 61 different names including barley malt, carob syrup, dextrin, dextrose, maltose, mannose and panocha. Even “healthy” foods like granola bars and yogurts are loaded with sugar. SNAP administrators have turned down requests by Maine, New York, Illinois and Minnesota to eliminate high sugar drinks and candy from their programs. (See 5F’s earlier article Food Fight.) One reason for the opposition is a reluctance to stigmatize the poor by limiting their food choices. Meanwhile a study published this October in JAMA demonstrated a link between food insecurity (which is associated with a high-sugar, highly processed food diet) to an increase in cancer rates. The poor, who are over-represented in sugar-related diseases, have the most to personally gain by a change in diet.

One possible remedy to our sugar crisis is to impose a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, which account for almost half of the added sugars consumed in the U.S. Proceeds could be used to support disease prevention programs and increase the availability and affordability of fresh fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods. Researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity estimated that a one penny per ounce state sugar-sweetened beverage tax would raise $1 billion in annual revenue in California. A national tax at that rate would save an estimated $23.6 billion in health care costs over 10 years. But passing sugar-sweetened beverage taxes is easier said than done.  In 2018, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and the American Beverage Association spent more than $30 million fighting against the ability of local governments to impose new sugar-sweetened beverage taxes in California, Washington and Oregon.

Sugar-sweetened drink taxes scare soda makers because they work. A soda tax in Berkeley, California, resulted in a 45% decline in consumption over the first three years of the tax. In 2017, Philadelphia implemented a soda tax, and in its first months sales of bottled water rose 58%, while sales of soda and energy drinks fell 40% and 64% respectively. Seven U.S. cities and thirty countries, including Mexico and the United Kingdom, have instituted sugar-sweetened beverage taxes, and, according to a recent poll, a majority of Americans support a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks if the funds are used to support preschool and children’s health. On the West Coast, soda makers prevailed by running a misleading ad campaign against the initiative in the guise of protecting “affordable groceries.”

Fighting Big Soda isn’t easy. Even in our own bodies. One spoonful of sugar leaves us craving more, stimulating our brain’s reward center like addictive drugs and alcohol do. It also interferes with our body’s ability to know when it is full, a disruption that leads to overeating. And the energy provided by sugar is short-lived, causing us to crave more within a short time. This is not a food source our government should be protecting.


American Enterprise Institute, Ballotpedia, Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago, Berkeley Food Institute at UC Berkeley, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, Sugar Science UCSF, The Diabetes, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University