The U.S. Appetite for Sugar Has Skyrocketed

Americans are eating too much of the sweet stuff, and a staggering portion of it is coming from drinks like soda.

A man selects a soft drink from a convenience-store refrigerator.
Elaine Thompson / AP

Public-health researchers agree: The evidence is clear that Americans consume way too much sugar, that sugar contributes to weight gain, and that rising rates of obesity in the United States will lead to significant health problems in the future. What’s much less clear is what to do about it. In this special, first-ever two-part episode of Gastropod, we tell the story of how sugary beverages—soda, in particular—became Public Health Enemy No. 1. Why are politicians and scientists targeting soda? Why have most attempts to pass soda taxes failed? And do these taxes even work to reduce consumption and obesity?

Today, the average American eats a lot of sugar. Exactly how much is a little tricky to pin down—even different government departments publish different numbers. But even conservative estimates show that we’re eating far too much for good health. A couple hundred years ago, we might have eaten two pounds of added sugar in an entire year, while today we are eating that much, on average, in only two weeks. Children, in particular, are sugar fiends and, as Julie Mennella at the Monell Chemical Senses Center points out, from the age of 2, an American child is more likely to eat a manufactured sweet on any given day than a piece of fruit. Our current food system is awash in added sugars—in candy, cookies, and ice cream, but also in less obvious foods, such as bread, crackers, and ketchup. But, as Barry Popkin, an economist and a nutritionist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told us, “We can’t ban them—we can’t ban food!”

But can we make them a little less attractive, perhaps by making them more expensive? In 2009, Kelly Brownell, director of the World Food Policy Center at Duke University, and Thomas Frieden, then-director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote an op-ed that started a revolution. They suggested that a tax on sugary beverages would be “a key tool in efforts to improve health,” reducing consumption while raising revenue that governments could use to pay for obesity-prevention initiatives.

“Now, the soda companies will often complain that they’re getting picked on unfairly,” says Brownell. But, while it’s hard to pin down exactly what Americans eat and drink, researchers believe that roughly half the added sugar in the average American diet comes from sugary beverages: soda, of course, but also energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened teas, coffees, and juice drinks, among others.

What’s more, according to Richard Mattes of Purdue University, these drinks are particularly bad for us because, unlike solid sugary foods, they don’t contribute to a feeling of fullness; people who get their excess calories in soda form are less likely to eat fewer calories during the day to compensate. On top of that, says the Harvard researcher Vasanti Malik, the intense burst of sugar that accompanies a quickly gulped can of Coke or Pepsi leads to an unusually high insulin surge and risks overloading the liver, which breaks down fructose. Both the insulin surge and the liver’s activities can lead to a higher risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart attacks, unrelated to soda’s caloric contribution to weight gain.

In the first part of Gastropod’s new two-part episode, “Souring on Sweet: The Great Soda Wars,” we tell the story of how scientists assembled the case against soda—and then how policy makers tried to act on that case to cut consumption, and how the soda industry fought back. Since 2009, the soda wars have raged, taking up countless column inches and costing billions of dollars, from Jon Stewart’s tirade against “nanny” Michael Bloomberg to the pervasive advertising that links soda to happiness, coolness, and even world peace. Listen in now to follow this epic battle, from New York’s failed soda-portion cap to the defeat of soda taxes at the ballot boxes in dozens of American cities. And tune in again in two weeks for the second part of the story, which picks up in Berkeley, California, with the successful passage of the first modern soda tax in the United States in 2014. In part two of our episode, we’ll answer the question: Do these taxes actually work? Is a simple tax the most effective tool, or do labels or other policy initiatives offer more bang for the buck? We have the scoop on all the latest evidence—plus the story of how the soda industry has responded, adopting the tactics of Big Tobacco and even blackmailing an entire state to try to keep soda consumption levels up.

This post appears courtesy of  Gastropod.