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Food Firms Hope You Can Never Have Too Much of a Sweeter Thing

Nutrition: More sugar is being added to products, alarming consumer groups that seek federal consumption guidelines.

April 28, 2002|MELINDA FULMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget dinner. These days most food companies are moving right on to dessert, pumping up the sugar in many of their new products--even diet food--in hopes of attracting new customers and boosting sales of tired brands.

Even frozen french fries are getting a chocolate and cinnamon sugar makeover.

Sweet sells, judging by the top-selling products of last year.

And they still can be marketed as "healthy," because consumers coming off the low-fat kick of the 1990s have been trained to look only at fat and calories and care little about the rising sugar levels in food.

However, a growing number of doctors and nutritionists warn that the increasing use of sugar is becoming a major factor in obesity and, therefore, adult-onset diabetes.

A key national nutrition advisory panel is considering whether to recommend a new limit on sugar, although some experts said such a curb won't discourage consumers from eating more sweetened foods.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 1, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Obesity survey: An article in Sunday's Business section misstated that a survey by NPD Group said most Americans don't care if they gain weight. In fact, the survey showed that Americans are becoming increasingly comfortable with their larger figures. Fewer consumers find being overweight unattractive.

The average consumer eats 152 pounds of sugar a year, 30 pounds more than two decades ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sugar use in food has been increasing since the mid-1990s, the USDA said.

"It's a very indulgent time we live in right now," said Tom Vierhile, executive editor of Productscan Online, a food product information service of Marketing Intelligence Service Ltd. "It's kind of strange to see this trend, when all evidence would suggest that the last thing we need is more indulgent food."

Although growing consumption of soft drinks containing high-fructose corn sweeteners accounts for a large part of the increase in sugar intake, doctors say the emphasis on low-fat food also played a part.

Food companies "took out the fat, but replaced it with sugar," said Sam Andrews, a New Orleans endocrinologist and coauthor of the diet book "Sugar Busters!" The downing of so much low-fat food during the 1990s, he said, "has just encouraged us to eat more sugar."

Because many sugary products such as yogurt still are relatively low in calories and, in some cases, are fortified with vitamins and minerals, most people consider them healthy.

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Despite Low-Fat Foods, Most Gained Pounds

But the proof is in the waistband, nutritionists say. Most people actually gained weight during the low-fat craze of the 1990s. Sixty percent of the U.S. population is overweight or obese.

Yet neither food companies nor federal health officials have addressed the spiraling consumption of sweeteners and the role they are playing in fattening America.

Consumer groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest have lobbied the government to require food companies to clearly label the amount of added sugars, such as corn syrup, dextrose and maltose, in all packaged goods and include a maximum recommended allowance so consumers can see how much sugar they are eating.

However, nearly three years after receiving a petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Food and Drug Administration still is considering the request.

Many, including Michael Jacobson, executive director of the consumer group, blame intense lobbying by the sugar and sweetener industries for the government's refusal to take as tough a stance on sugar as it has on fat.

Indeed, the Sugar Assn., the trade group for the sugar industry, acknowledged that it asked the USDA several years ago to change the proposed wording of its dietary guidelines on sugar. The wording now urges consumers to use "moderation" rather than "limit" their sugar intake.

"There is no evidence that sugar in moderation has any ill effects," said Sugar Assn. President Richard Keelor. "It's our job to make sure they look at the preponderance of science, and that's the law."

To help make its case, the industry has on occasion sponsored health research, Keelor said.

And it is a fierce opponent of anyone who criticizes sugar. Critics have in some cases been threatened with legal action for making what the organization says are "misleading" statements.

New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle, author of "Food Politics," was sent a letter by the Sugar Assn. after making some remarks critical of sugar during her recent book tour.

"[The USDA] is up against a very powerful industry that chooses the kinds of studies that [the agency] looks at and gives its own interpretation of sugar on health," Nestle said.

Nevertheless, she said, it's important that people, especially kids, limit sugar intake. And that, she said, is getting harder as people get used to sweeter and sweeter foods.

In the May issue of Consumer Reports magazine, she noted, the highest-rated peanut butters were picked as much for their sweet taste as for their peanut flavor. Unsweetened peanut butter was described as "bitter."

"That's not the word I would use. "I would describe it as peanutty," she said. "As people get used to sweet tastes, [products] have to be sweeter and sweeter."

Nestle said sugar encourages people to eat bigger portions, creating bigger demand.

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An Inexpensive Way to Revamp Products

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