Sugar: The Bitter Global Cost

Last March, the World Health Organization issued new guidelines for added sugar in-take, which, soon, will be reflected on food labels worldwide.

Before the end of this year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will issue new guidance to Americans on how much sugar we should be consuming daily as part of a healthy diet. As a reflection of those new guidelines, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will mandate that within 2 years, the nutrition facts label on packaged goods carry a percentage daily value (%DV) for total added sugar enclosed in the package. The proposed rule is that added sugar should not “exceed 10 percent” of total calories. The FDA-mandated labeling will reflect that recommendation and try to make the guidelines easier for Americans to understand.

It is an important goal. A 2012 Nielsen survey of global consumers found almost 60 percent of consumers don’t understand packaged food labeling.

The truth is, as almost any doctor or health professional will tell you, we don’t need any added sugar because our bodies make all we need from the foods we eat. The USDA’s own dietary guidelines 10 years ago point out that consumption of added sugar, while it provides calories, provides “little, if any of the essential nutrients.”

The new dietary guidelines and label recommendations are both still being heavily contested by lobbyists in Washington.

Even so, the word is getting out around the world that sugar, especially the sugar we are drinking – in sodas, sweetened teas, coffees and even in fruit juice – is a major cause of the obesity epidemic and the chronic diseases with which that epidemic is often associated, according to a study last year by Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health. In April of this year, the McKinsey Global Institute reported that one third of the world’s population is either overweight or obese. According the report, the total economic impact of obesity is about $2 trillion a year, or 2.8 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.

Even as policy makers, Wall Street analysts, ‘big food’ marketing analysts and health care economists are trying to assess the impact of the proposed label changes on public demand for sugar, agricultural and trade economists are anticipating the changes with some angst and handwringing. We should be paying attention. Shelly Goldberg, of the Wall Street Journal reported last spring that sugar prices have been dropping since 2011. There are multiple reasons, including a drop in demand by health-conscious Westerners, even while consumers in developing countries are increasing their consumption.

According the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, sugar cane is the number-one agricultural commodity in the world by volume; and by value, it is number nine. Nations with the fastest growing economies in the world: Brazil, India and China, are the world’s top producers of sugar cane.

In October, Jonathan Brooks, a senior economist at Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) working in the Trade and Agricultural Directorate, told an assembled group that the detrimental economic impact of global trade agreements pales in comparison to impact of decreased demand for sugar that will result when consumers begin to understand and adopt the new U.S. and global dietary guidelines.

So, how do we balance the burden that sugar is putting on global health, with the positive role that it plays in propping up the global economy? That question points to the growing realization that the world’s agricultural policies do not focus on ameliorating the health of its people. That was the subject matter of a group of health and agricultural experts in a meeting I presented to at the OECD last month. Increasingly, policy makers are realizing that we must take action to craft such health-conscious policies.

With one-third of the world overweight or obese, we absolutely need to address the sugar in our diets. Really, shouldn’t we all remember that health is wealth? But let’s not lose sight of our interconnectedness and the true complexity of change as economies adjust, and, bit-by-bit, we learn how to improve our nutrition.

Gatorade vs Water: The Marketing to Washington Two Step

There was a little-covered story in the Huffington Post a few days ago.

As part of a letter agreement with the New York Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, Pepsi now has to pay for promoting Gatorade as the enemy of water. How did Pepsi get into this situation? They created a mobile game using Olympic Gold Medal award winner Usain Bolt.

The game, Gatorade Bolt, was the brainchild media agency OMD and has Bolt dodging water droplets as he makes it to a finish line. The objective of the game is to increase speed to that finish line—and the only thing that slows a player down is water. Imagine! Targeted at the 13-24 year old demographic, the message Pepsi is attempting to convey is that drinking Gatorade better supports energy than water. The ad campaign won last year’s Bronze Award from IAB for its creativity. The game had 820 million brand impressions.

But wait a minute. Didn’t Pepsi support The Partnership for a Healthier America’s Drink Up campaign promoting water? Which is it, Drink up (water), or drink up Gatorade? I bet you can guess.

When I worked at the FCC, we used to call that the “Washington Two Step.” Tell policy makers one thing, while telling Wall Street the opposite. This is a version of that, the marketplace two step: supporting the Drink Up campaign as evidence that you are working hard to participate in cleaning up the American diet, while insidiously spending exponentially more amounts of advertising dollars promoting the consumption of salted sugar-water to impressionable teens and young people. And, just as an aside, their advertising medium is almost completely hidden from the parents of the demographically targeted group.

Thankfully, Pepsi pulled the game. It’s no longer available. The case study recounting the agency’s work, also gone from the IAB site. Pepsi was required to give $100,000 dollars to The Partnership for a Healthier America as part of letter agreement with the NY State Attorney Generals office.

So, bravo to Nancy Huehnergarth for writing the original article on this in Civil Eats, and also for the follow-up piece for HuffPo. Bravo to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for taking on Pepsi in an election year. A tentative nod to Pepsi, too, for sending a senior leader to a meeting last week hosted by Luminary Labs where tech, NGOs and entrepreneurs gathered to make suggestions on providing better nutrition to women in the poorest parts of the Bronx. He was the only one there from the “big food” sector. Perhaps Pepsi, under the leadership of Indra Nooyi, is working to bring the culture along… no longer dodging water droplets while doing the two step.

[Image: Droplet experiments by fdecomite]

Lets get started.


When I was a little girl, sick with an upset stomach, my Jamaican-born grandmother served ginger tea. She unconsciously created in me a lifelong appreciation for the value of food as medicine.

Food heals. It’s easy to forget that. It’s time we remember.

This summer I sat in on multiple discussions among public health leaders and policy influencers on the topic of childhood obesity. None were willing to even say that processed food and its advertising significantly contribute to the problem. Is it that because children are a lower priority than commerce—or is it simply that at this time, short-term investment outweighs investments long-term?

If, as recent medical research suggests, 90% of our health is tied to the flora in our digestive system, why aren’t we talking more actively about food as medicine? It’s time to elevate that discussion.

Public health advocates have an astounding lack of sophistication about what it takes to reach into the hearts and minds of people, finding within us a desire to want to improve our health by eating better. Leaving aside for a moment poverty, violence, racial and educational inequality (after all, what we eat is reflected by all of those conditions), what we eat is informed by our cultural influences. It’s time for informing everyone. It’s time for creating a culture that cares about food and its impact on health.

Policy change and consumer demand take place in the context of cultural shifts. Social media, television, billboards, radio and word of mouth, all need to reach people where they live. How to change, and what to do must be the background noise wholesale jerseys of our lives. It’s time to influence the “in between moments” for better decisions about health.

As an eternal optimist, I believe the desire to be our best self is innate in us all. We want to be connected to what makes us feel energized, calm and healthy. It’s time to stop misleading people about what produces health.

If you have a product, an idea, or a behavior to communicate that helps people be their best selves, it’s time we work together.

My work can make yours better.

I know from my time at Nielsen, working on creating a culture of health and on initiatives like the Partnership for a Healthier America “Drink Up” project that messaging must be informed by data on who does what, where and when. The way we talk about health must take into account attitudes and how those manifest in observable behaviors. The words and images that reach people are most effective when they tap into unconscious desires. It’s time we reach deep.


Together let’s create a culture where grandmothers and all of their offspring appreciate the power of ginger tea. It’s time.


I look forward to working with you soon.