It’s Time We Treated Sugar Like We Do Cigarettes

The food we consume impacts many aspects of our lives and bodies: hormones, brain chemistry, immune system, microbiome, and more. As consumers, we deserve easy understanding of foods’ nutritional value to make informed decisions on what we eat and how it impacts our health and wellness. This is especially important for ingredients harmful in excess, like sugar. As researchers in functional medicine, longevity, AI, and nutrition, and inventors of health-enhancing and life-saving solutions, we’ve dedicated careers to millions’ health and well-being. While applauding the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) important steps towards mandatory front-of-package labeling for packaged foods in the U.S., this change cannot come soon enough. Everyone’s health depends on it.

Adults should consume no more than 50 grams of added sugar daily (based on a 2,000 calorie diet), but average Americans consume closer to 22 teaspoons of sugar daily, more than triple the recommendation. To provide context, average Americans consume 150 pounds of sugar per person per year. With such sugar intake, it’s no wonder 40% of American adults are diabetic or prediabetic. Worse, we consume much sugar without realizing it. Over 60 ways identify sugar on labels, unfairly complicating intake regulation attempts.

Extensive peer-reviewed medical research confirms common knowledge excess sugar intake can cause serious issues like obesity, heart disease, liver problems, cancer, diabetes, and even death.

Most U.S. packaged foods contain added sugar, seemingly healthy ones like salad dressing, coleslaw, baked beans, marinades, and yogurt, some more than soda. Sugar’s biological addictiveness – studies show it’s more addictive than cocaine – makes hidden presence in many foods even more harmful. Most are addicted to sugar without knowing it.

This addiction cycle is relentless and hard to break: we eat sugary food triggering blood sugar spikes lighting brain’s pleasure center. Inevitable sugar crashes produce cravings for more sugar. Without discernible labels, shoppers unknowingly create this cycle internally while thinking purchases healthy.

In many countries, packaged food labels serve cigarette carton functions: risk warnings. A UK policy of “high in” labels on sugary drinks dramatically reduced beverage consumption. An Israeli program where red labels indicate sugar-high items led to 76% population positive buying changes. We’re excited to see similar U.S. program effects.

Those lobbying against front-of-package changes, unsurprisingly, have interests in product popularity continuance. In a February 2023 lawsuit, largest cereal producers threatened over proposals barring “healthy” labels for excess sugar items. Rightfully, front-of-package changes would prevent many sugary cereals calling themselves “healthy.”

This dynamic resembles 20th century cigarette advertising changes. 1940s campaigns featured “More doctors smoke Camels.” By 1969, mandatory warnings supplemented cigarettes, giving clearer risk information and allowing more informed choices. Today, 11% of Americans smoke versus nearly half back when “more doctors smoked Camels.” Life expectancy also rose in that span, and certainly contributed.

While front-of-package labeling on packaged foods is a crucial first step towards a healthier society, education and awareness alone won’t take us far. To drive more significant changes in how most Americans eat, leading to a healthier population, we must also incentivize healthier alternative production and widespread distribution. These alternatives – a packaged cookie with healthier ingredients, for instance – must be just as delicious and available as sugar-loaded ones. The recently announced USDA school meal sugar limits can greatly help availability, especially for forming habits. For the rest, though, front-of-package labeling is an important step one; readily available healthier alternatives is step two.

FDA leadership ensuring labeling of high sugar contents in packaged foods could increase awareness and reduce sugar’s negative impacts, helping millions live healthier, longer lives. This change would help make more informed choices about food and health. We believe it’s our right, and every American’s right, to clear, visible sugar content information to make more informed decisions.