Sugar Is the New Public Health Enemy #1

Governments try to reduce consumption of the sweet stuff through guidelines and taxes.

A Mexican worker walks past a huge pile of embargoed sugar in 2001. (Andrew Winning / Reuters)

On Thursday, the U.S. government issued a new version of its dietary guidelines, which include the new, concrete recommendation that people receive less than 10 percent of their daily calorie intake from added sugar.

This is far more specific than the 2010 edition of the guidelines, which simply said to “reduce the intake of calories … from added sugars,” with no particular numbers attached. Based on Americans’ increasing sugar intake over the past few decades, a more concrete goal might be helpful—between 1977 and 2010, Americans’ consumption of added sugars went up by 30 percent, according to the Obesity Society.

These days, though, many people seem to be at least trying to cut back—as my colleague Olga Khazan noted the other day, Google searches for “low-sugar” diets are starting to overtake “low-fat” diets. And so it seems that sugar is moving into the slot of Bad Thing of the Moment, once held by fat, once by carbs more broadly, and held by who knows what in the future—nutrition science is always evolving.

But for the time being, the U.S. isn’t the only country trying to get people off the sweet stuff. David Cameron, the prime minster of the U.K., said on Thursday that he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a sugar tax as a measure against the obesity crisis, the BBC reports. A paper by Public Health England, published in October 2015, recommended a tax of between 10 and 20 percent on “high-sugar products … such as on full-sugar soft drinks.” Though Cameron said he would “rather avoid” a tax, he also said, “What matters is we do make progress” on obesity.

The evidence suggests a tax would likely lead to progress—according to a recent study published in The BMJ, when Mexico implemented a tax on sugary beverages on January 1, 2014, purchases of the taxed beverages went down by 12 percent by December of that year.

Legislating sugar is a strategy that’s popped up in the U.S. as well—Berkeley, California, was the first U.S. city to implement a soda tax in March 2015. But no word yet on whether Berkeley residents are any closer than the rest of the country to meeting the new dietary guidelines.