Christina Petsoulis, MJLST Staffer
As of 2017, obesity rates in the United States reached 38.9%. It is without a doubt that poor diet is a major contributing factor to obesity prevalence. More specifically, diets consisting of convenience foods containing high amounts of added sugar serve as significant exposures leading to obesity and other comorbidities. A recent study reported that sugar was added to 66% of packaged foods.
While the sugar industry is quick to blame lack of physical activity for America’s obesity rates, research is clear that diets high in refined sugar increase the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, fatty liver disease, cognitive decline and some cancers.
Though the linkages between food and obesity have been well established in scientific literature for some time, it is not until now that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has seriously recognized the importance of diet quality in chronic disease prevention.
On March 29, 2018, FDA commissioner, Dr. Scott Gotlieb, announced the Nutrition Innovation Strategy (NIS). Some of the key elements highlighted in the NIS include: modernizing claims, modernizing ingredient labels, modernizing standards of identity, implementing the nutrition facts label and menu labeling, and reducing sodium. The agency stated that it would be “committed to finding new ways to reduce the burden of chronic disease through improved nutrition.”
Gotlieb’s press release introducing the initiative seems to take a different perspective despite the agency’s intended goal.
In Gotlieb’s statement, he started by explaining the critical importance of a healthy diet in human health. He first introduced the importance of informed consumer choice as it relates to transparent labeling, then dove into the issue of “standards of identity.” Using milk as a key example, he explained that plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk, such as soy and almond-based beverages, labeled as “milk” create major public health concerns, including cases of kwashiorkor (protein deficiency disorder), and rickets (vitamin D deficiency disorder). He then went on to cite a case where a child was diagnosed with rickets as a result of parents assuming a soy-based beverage they fed their child contained the same nutritional qualities as cow’s milk. While the issue of standards of identity is relevant to public health nutrition in the context of protein deficiency and other forms of malnutrition, these issues have little relevance to obesity, or any other chronic disease for that matter.
It is surprising to see that Gotlieb’s press release does not highlight any of the important factors contributing to obesity in light of the initiative’s supposed goals. The worry, of course, is that the FDA is tip-toeing around food-industry players and, namely, the sugar industry in efforts to avoid conflict. The sugar industry is known for its aggressive efforts to shift blame for obesity on poor diet to lack of physical activity and poor consumer choice. For example, it was recently discovered that the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to produce favorable results in their nutrition research on sugar’s role in heart disease.
While FDA has addressed the issue of sugar content through “added sugars” labeling requirements finalized in May 2016, little has been done to address sugar content in packaged foods. Serious efforts need to be taken to reduce sugar content in foods on the market to address the obesity epidemic