by Katie Byrnes, guest writer
Walk down any street in America and the fact that 35.7 percent of adults are obese is blatantly obvious. Visiting a school is equally distressing; 18 percent of children and adolescents are obese, according to the Center for Disease Control. We are aware of the facts— high fructose corn syrup has become the number one source of calories for most Americans. Although we at Warren Wilson are aware of the dangers of poor nutrition, the average American eats over 130 pounds of sugar and drinks 600 cans of soda per year. All these calories result in weight gain and ill health, as well as a desire to eat yet more sugar each day.
Why do we love sugar? I have been reading Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss. In the book, he describes how special receptors for sugar in each of the mouth’s 10,000 taste buds are connected to the brain’s pleasure center. Sugar, just like drugs, activates the release of dopamine, which reinforces the use of the substance. Consuming sugar makes us want more sugar. It interferes with the body’s appetite, creating a desire to continue eating, even when a person is no longer hungry. It should come as no surprise that there is a link between increasing sugar consumption and the obesity epidemic in America.
Eating all this sugar is addicting. A recent study conducted at Connecticut College found that when rats eat cookies there are more neurons activated in the brain’s pleasure center than when the rat is exposed to cocaine or morphine. A 2011 study showed the brains of people with food addictions reacted to junk food in the same way people with drug addiction react to the presence of drugs. Sugar addicts display many of the same behaviors as drug addicts: cravings, tolerance, withdrawal, denial, and continuing the behavior even though negative consequences are recognized.
Why is this information so disturbing? Because the food industry is behind the creation of this sugar addiction. The food industry uses knowledge about the human body’s desire for sweets to increase the consumption of processed foods. Our earliest experiences with food affect our taste for years to come. Companies teach children to expect food to taste sweet. Parents purchase breakfast cereals, juices, and snacks that were designed to have a quantity of sugar that has been formulated to the “bliss point”; the more sugar the better. In 1999, executives from major food companies were called to a meeting organized by a top official at Pillsbury. There was concern that snacks and convenience foods invented to be occasional treats were being linked to the obesity crisis because they are eaten daily. An official from Kraft Foods spoke of the need for industry-wide limits to reduce the copious amounts of sugar, fat, and salt in foods so that cravings could be reduced. In response to this proposal, the CEO of General Mills stood up and exclaimed that his company would not change the recipes that were so alluring to his customer base. He was afraid that fewer sales would decrease profits. The opportunity to change the food industry was lost and all of the major food corporations at the meeting rejected the idea of reformulating their products to improve American health. Sugar-laden foods continue to be produced and marketed to consumers, who trade nutrition for convenience.
What was the result of the food industry valuing profit over nutrition? Excess consumption of sugar cane, sugar beets, and high fructose corn syrup is linked to increasing rates of diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, yeast infections, depression, immune system suppression, dental decay, gum disease, and obesity. Reducing these health disorders will require not only individual responsibility, but also food corporations finally adopting industry standards to enforce limits on what is added to food. Sadly, addiction therapy to help individuals retrain their brain’s desire for substances may also be needed by sugar addicts. It is time for corporate America to put health before profits. I am left wondering if this will ever happen.