Sugar, these days, has a bad reputation. The crucial ingredient in the foods that many Americans count among their favorites (hey, Ben! what is up, Jerry?) has become, in the public mind, not just a source of sweetness on the palate, but also a “poison.” A “toxin.” Something that, some argue, should be regulated the same way alcohol is. The consumption of refined sugar, as we commonly understand it today, is a direct cause not just of obesity and fatigue, but also of diabetes and depression—not to mention many more maladies that are the current subjects of research. Refined sugar, the current thinking goes, won’t just make you gain weight; it will also leech away your health, pretty much, one red velvet cupcake at a time.
All that thinking, though, has come about relatively recently. Just a few decades ago, in the early 1970s, the PR arm of the Sugar Association, the leading trade group representing both sugar growers and sugar refiners, launched a campaign premised on the idea that sugar was ... a useful diet aid. The campaign came during a time when the Sugar Association itself was discovering links between the consumption of sugar and conditions like diabetes and obesity. It sidestepped concerns about sugar’s effect on one’s health, however, by focusing on sugar’s effect on something else: one’s appearance.
One of the ads in question summoned neuroscience, invoking the appestat—“the region of the hypothalamus of the brain that is believed to control a person's appetite for food”—and suggesting that sugar consumption was a way to trick the appestat into a sense of satiety.
Another took a more emotional approach to the idea that sugar could suppress the appetite, focusing on the willpower required to, as this ad unironically puts it, “undereat.”
Another, from a 1970 issue of Life magazine, told the same basic story—a cyclical hunger-monster that must be fooled into submission in order for weight loss to be achieved—from the male point of view:
Another, from Life’s November 1970 issue, was even more brazen, cheekily claiming that sugar can “spoil your appetite.” (And recommending that a dieter “nibble on a cookie about an hour before lunch.”)
Yet another, from 1977, took a more orthogonal approach to the sugar-as-diet-aid idea, focusing on the health benefits of sugar in kids’ diets, in particular. Sugar’s “good natural sweetness,” the ad argued, its spunky glass of cola thrust forward by a blurry child, can be an important part of any “balanced diet.”
The rhetoric here—“good natural sweetness”—was in part a response to the rise of artificial sweetener, particularly as ingredients in sodas and other beverages.
Saccharine, discovered in the late 1870s, had been available in commercial foods for most of the early 20th century. (So had controversies about the dangers the sweetener posed to public health: In 1908, after a government chemist proposed a ban of the substance, Theodore Roosevelt declared, in his Bull Moosian way: “Anyone who says saccharine is injurious to health is an idiot.”) It wasn’t until mid-century, though, that artificially sweetened sodas entered en masse, and with an emphasis on their abilities as diet aids. In the early 1950s, New York's Jewish Sanitarium for Chronic Disease—known today as the Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center—produced a soda for its diabetic patients. The drink was called No-Cal, and it sold surprisingly well, much better than you’d expect for such an ostensibly niche product. It turned out that more than half the consumers buying the drink were doing so not because of diabetes, but because of diets. A new kind of soda was born—with No-Cal quickly followed by Coca-Cola’s diet soda, Tab, and Patio Cola, rebranded in 1964 as Diet Pepsi.
It was natural, given all that, that the interest group known today as “Big Sugar” would try to corner its own segment of the diet market. It was natural that it would try to emphasize the naturalness of sugar when compared to the synthetic sweeteners. The sugar advertising that took place in the 1970s may have been laughably inaccurate. It is also, however, a reminder of how dynamic our assumptions about health and wellness can be, and of how deeply informed those assumptions can be by people who are experts in marketing rather than medicine. In 1976, for its pro-sugar campaign, the Sugar Association won the Public Relations Society of America’s prestigious Silver Anvil award. In its citation, the PRSA praised the campaign’s ability to “reach target audiences with the scientific facts concerning sugar,” and to “establish with the broadest possible audience the safety of sugar as a food.”