Thursday September 20, 2012

The fact a plan to limit the size of sugary drinks that can be sold in New York City seems controversial -- "they're taking away our freedoms!" -- shows how far Americans are from dealing with our horrendously unhealthy dietary habits.

Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup in the typical diet, which contributes to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and on and on, is so out of control it is difficult to believe New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal is anything more than a hopeless gesture. Much tougher measures would be required if we hope to slow a health disaster freight training coming down the tracks.

In recent decades, our highly packaged and processed diet -- as opposed to the human diet before mass food processing by giant corporate entities -- has produced one common ingredient or practice after another linked to soaring obesity rates and to the most common illnesses and conditions. Our national health care bills also have climbed right alongside the soaring rates of these unnecessary illnesses.

To focus on just sugar and HFCS for a moment, consider the book, "The Sugar Fix," by Dr. Richard J. Johnson and Timothy Gower, which lays out in detail the havoc wrought by substances our ancestors had scant access to but which we are overwhelmed by in almost every food type save those pulled directly from the garden.


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In providing a brief history, the book charts the steady rise in the availability of sweetened, processed foods that began around 1880 and continues to soar today. At this point the amount of refined sugar and HFCS in the U.S. amounts to more than 86 pounds per person -- a figure reached when "The Sugar Fix" first appeared four years ago.

Whether the cheaper HFCS, which began to replace refined sugar in foods in the 1970s and now totals about half the amount, has worse effects on health is really beside the point. Those huge amounts of sweetener consumed by a species that a few hundred years ago consumed very little added sweeteners are beyond outrageous.

And a principal reason for this change in diets is that processed foods -- never mind drinks -- are laced with sweeteners, even those in which most people have no idea sweeteners are present. Obviously, food processors are aware of the addictive nature of sweets and act accordingly, just as they have with trans fat, salt and other additives.

So, Mayor Bloomberg's plan really is more of a baby step than anything drastic. Only much stronger regulation would have a snowball's chance of reducing what amounts to the slow poisoning of the species.