An Urban's Rural View

What Do the Experts Know, Anyway?

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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It's not exactly a news flash that experts and consumers sometimes differ on what consumers should and shouldn't consume. But sometimes an instance of this divergence is so flagrant it smacks you in the face, demanding your attention. For me the latest smack came from two newspaper articles, published only days apart, about sugar.

Speaking for the nutrition experts was a New York Times op-ed piece (…) advocating warning labels on sodas. A 16-ounce Coca-Cola has 12 -- count them, 12 -- teaspoons of sugar, the piece observed, but Americans don't know this and the "Nutrition Facts" on the label (…) aren't much help. Regarding sugars the label says, simply, "54g."

But Americans don't think in grams and the label is silent on whether 54 grams is a lot or a little. It's a lot. The Food and Drug Administration's recommended daily sugar intake is 50 grams. Drink one 16-ounce soda and you're already over the limit. And the FDA recommendation is generous. The World Health Organization's recommended daily intake is 25 grams.

Arguing that this opaqueness contributes to obesity and diabetes, the Times piece weighed the pros and cons of alternative ways to change the label and educate the public. It noted approvingly that in Mexico, the government is running television commercials asking, "Would you give your child 12 teaspoons of sugar? Then why would you give him a soda?"

Judging from a Wall Street Journal news story (…) that ran a few days before the Times' op-ed, many consumers don't share the experts' concerns about sugar. The first giveaway was the headline: "Soft-Drink Makers Have New Secret Ingredient: Sugar!" Companies, the Journal reported, are changing soda-can labels, but not the way the experts hope. Instead, they're touting "cane sugar" and "real sugar" in hopes of luring consumers who love all things "natural," even things experts deride as unhealthy.

As an example of this kind of consumer, the article cited a 28-year-old Pittsburgh lawyer who says she tries to eat a natural, plant-based diet. When she indulges in a soda, it's made with cane sugar. High-fructose corn syrup may come from a plant but to this kind of consumer it isn't natural.

Aspartame isn't natural or a plant, so diet sodas are out. The young lawyer gave them up four years ago, and she's hardly alone. U.S. Soda consumption dropped to a 30-year low in 2015, led by 5% year-to-year declines for both Diet Pepsi and Diet Coke (…). While some nutritionists are, like some consumers, down on diet sodas, few nutritionists advocate switching to sugary drinks.

This newfound love of "natural" sugar is not, to be sure, the only example of consumers flouting nutritional experts. For decades, nutritionists warned Americans they were eating too much meat, but year after year per-capita meat consumption increased. (It has declined a bit in recent years, though the U.S. remains near the top of the list of meat-eating countries.)

Yet it's one thing for consumers to love meat and ignore advice to cut back on it. It's another to make what amounts to an ideological choice in favor of "natural" even if the natural product is high in sugar, salt or fat.

If nothing else the two cases present different challenges to the food system. One asks the system to make more of something -- meat. The other asks it to change what it makes. The changes requested are unhappy ones for corn farmers, who already have plenty of reason to be unhappy.

While contemplating these changes, food companies will also be mulling changes in product labels. As a market researcher in the Journal story put it, "The number one fixation on food companies' minds is 'clean label': natural ingredients and shorter ingredient lists that look like you made it at home."

Compared to changing a product, changing a label to make a product more saleable is easy. To cite but one example, the supermarket aisles are now crammed with products labeled "Gluten Free." Never mind that the latest research (…) casts serious doubt on whether gluten sensitivity exists. If consumers want gluten-free, they'll get it, regardless of what the experts say.

Many of these products never had gluten to begin with; all that's changed is the label. Ontario farmer Bill Denham pointed me to a blog post by a fellow Canadian poking fun at this "cheeky labeling" (…).

Still, legislators and regulators occasionally listen to experts even if consumers don't. With that in mind, I'm awaiting the day when I see a product with "Cane Sugar" in big capital letters on the front of the package, a few inches above "Warning: Sugar Can Cause Obesity and Diabetes."

Urban Lehner



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