Dear Surgeon General,
We need your help, Vivek Murthy. You’re now our nation’s top doctor and we need you. Sugar is a problem. We love it. We consume literally tons of it. But it doesn’t love us back.
In fact, our sugar habit is making us sick. You’re the one person in the country we can look to for a full diagnosis. We need you to step boldly into the conversation and assemble all the facts. Just as your predecessor did when he weighed in in 1964 on smoking.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Surgeon General’s first authoritative report on smoking and health, rightly considered a landmark in public health. Since that first report in 1964, there have been 31 more Surgeon General reports on the effects of tobacco smoking. Motivated by these reports, the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped from 42% in 1964 to 18% in 2012 — still too high, but a real change. Excellent work! Now, it’s time for the Surgeon General to issue a new report. We think it’s sugar’s turn.
In the 50 years since the tobacco study, there has been one report (in 1988) from the Surgeon General on health and nutrition. Over the last 26 years, the science of nutrition and health has advanced enormously. Thanks to modern research and data techniques, today we know a lot more about the impact of our eating habits on our health than we did 50 years ago. In particular, we need you to take a close look at the effects of the skyrocketing levels of sugar we consume.
As part of a growing body of scientific evidence, we now know that added sugar in America’s diet has a huge impact on public health. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease — driven by high sugar consumption without the essential fiber that accompanies naturally occurring sugar in fruit — afflicts an estimated 31% of American adults and 13% of children. Excessive sugar consumption is also linked to heart disease and type 2 diabetes, affecting 16 million and 26 million Americans respectively. And the trend lines for our kid’s future are even gloomier.
More than 19 teaspoons every day
The average American consumes more than 19 teaspoons (82 grams) every day. That’s two to three times the recommended daily limit. Worse still, our overconsumption of sugar is fueled by healthy-seeming foods that hide sugar — products such as yogurt, tomato sauce and bread — behind synonyms such as barley malt, agave nectar, corn syrup and 61 other innocuous sounding names. Sugar is added to a whopping 74% of packaged foods.
And if that wasn’t enough, Americans are bombarded with slick advertising for products high in sugar. Advertising that is enormously well-funded (about $7 billion annually) and targets vulnerable populations such as children. It’s designed to manipulate the choices we make throughout our lives.
Overconsumption of sugar and its strain on our health and health care system need national attention. There is a momentum building across the country to address this problem. Berkeley, Calif., just passed the nation’s first tax on soda. The Food and Drug Administration recently advanced a proposal to include an “added sugar” line in the ubiquitous Nutrition Facts labels. And the dietary guidelines advisory committee, a panel of experts that advise the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after considering the latest scientific evidence, supports an added sugar label. These are all glimmers of momentum. But you, Surgeon General, could be the engine that roars ahead.
When we have questions about our health, we go to the doctor. We need you, America’s top doctor, to help us understand the impact of added sugar on our health. It’s time for the Office of the Surgeon General to commission a report on a public health issue affecting so many Americans.
Doctor, can you help us?
Main photo: The average American consumes more than 19 teaspoons of sugar every day. That’s two to three times the recommended daily limit. Credit: iStock