The Bitter Facts of Sweet Drinks
You may feel it would be un-American to ban large servings of sugared sodas or even to tax them. But allow us to explain why Mayor Bill de Blasio is wise to revive the Bloomberg administration’s effort to impose such restrictions, and why voters in San Francisco and Berkeley should approve their cities’ proposals to impose a sugar tax.
The bitter truth is America’s overconsumption of sweetened sodas, iced teas and sports drinks is a major cause of a severe and escalating health crisis that results in more than 1 of every 3 adult Americans becoming obese, and 1 out of 11 suffering from diabetes and its many complications. Soda and sports drink commercials featuring perfectly toned athletes and models create as false an image of these products, as old cigarette ads that promoted the myth that smoking could transform you into a macho cowboy.
It is time we all understand precisely what excessive consumption of sugar does to our bodies — particularly in the form of beverages sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, a federally-subsidized product which is a chemically-treated mix of the naturally occurring sugars fructose and glucose, designed to maximize sweetness.
Drinking sweetened beverages is the most direct method of injecting sugar from your gut into your bloodstream, far more efficient than eating a candy bar which takes time to digest, especially since its sugar is mixed with fats like chocolate. If you’re a professional athlete, burning through thousands of calories each day, sending sweet corn syrup on an express train through the body is not all bad, since it provides quick energy. But few of us burn calories like the athletes who are paid millions to endorse sodas and sports drinks. Instead, the extra energy we don’t use is converted to fat. Consume enough excess calories on a daily basis and you’re on your way to obesity, which often triggers a downward health spiral.
Among the places where the body stores excess fat is the liver, which is in charge of metabolizing fructose. As that fat accumulates, it becomes harder for the body to process sugar, eventually causing resistance to the hormone insulin, which regulates the amount of glucose in our bloodstream. For millions of Americans this insulin resistance leads to diabetes, which is the leading culprit for blindness and amputations in adults, and a top cause of heart disease and death.
Consider the French delicacy foie gras, which translates to “fat liver.” Farmers force feed ducks and geese with corn before slaughter so their livers are enlarged enough to create the dish. This practice has incited so much outrage that it is banned in California, Chicago and several countries around the world. Yet this is essentially what Americans are doing to themselves by guzzling liters of corn syrup-packed sodas that fatten livers, pack on the pounds, elevate cholesterol, and bring on disease.
The tragic irony here is that the federal government is subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup through billions of dollars of support for corn farmers. This makes high-fructose corn syrup an inexpensive sweetener for beverage manufacturers, allowing them to price their products to be easily affordable for consumers. It also creates an incentive for Americans to eat a diet of processed foods sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, rather than healthier, unprocessed natural foods.
Ultimately, it costs the government billions more in Medicaid and Medicare payments to treat the 29 million Americans who end up with diabetes. Add private sector expenses and the direct medical bill for diabetes was $176 billion in 2012, plus another $69 billion in reduced productivity of victims.
It makes no sense for the government to be funding a product that is not only detrimental to the health of its citizens, but also costs huge sums to address its consequences. Washington’s corn subsidies are literally fueling its medical spending.
We hope Mayor de Blasio finds a way to regulate sales of large soft drinks, that Bay Area residents approve a sugar tax, and that both policies lead to similar steps across the nation. But what ultimately matters more is a change in American eating habits. We can all dramatically improve our health simply by reducing consumption of sweetened sodas, iced teas and sports drinks. So even if you believe government has no role banning large sodas or taxing sugar, do yourself a favor — cut sugary drinks out of your diet. It could be the difference that saves your life.
Dr. Davis is CEO and President of Mount Sinai Health System
Dr. Tamler is clinical director of the Mount Sinai Diabetes Center