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Is a ban on sugar really a good thing?

June 08, 2012

Two of my favorite food groups, salt and sugar, were in the news this week. Grease and chocolate, meanwhile, managed to fly under the national radar, at least for the time being.

For salt, the news was good, although bad for anyone who has deprived himself of dry-roasted peanuts for the last four decades, and might now be tempted to go after the Department of Agriculture with a machete.

Writing an op-ed in the New York Times, health-policy researcher Gary Taubes rather effectively destroys the conventional wisdom that salt is bad for you.

In fact, some studies show that the greater danger is getting too little salt. But since salt was branded as a bad guy circa 1972, the government has been terribly reluctant to alter its anti-salt message. An editor for The Journal of the American Medical Association was quoted as saying that the government “commitment to salt education ... goes way beyond the scientific facts.”

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But for sugar, meanwhile, the news was nowhere as promising. In a bold initiative, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced something of a war on soda. Specifically, the city would ban the sale of uber drinks pushed on society by convenience stores and movie theaters nationwide.

That big gulp you heard just came from the makers of Coke and Pepsi.

I can think of a million reasons why this ban on sodasaurus is a good thing. You start with the very real possibility that today’s school kids might be the first American generation with shorter life expectancies than their parents.

The reason is obesity, and it is difficult to argue that sugared drinks are not a significant part of the problem, as are the volume in which they are served. Three of these beverages might represent a full day’s recommended caloric intake.

The health risks of obesity don’t have to be restated. But what should be restated until the public’s ears fall off is the cost of obesity. Health care might not even have become an issue were we all in fighting trim. Private eating habits become a public matter when all taxpayers are forced to foot the bill of others’ excesses.

It was the same argument that came up during the debate over motorcycle helmets: If you want to risk a vegetative state that’s your concern, but it’s the tax- and insurance-paying public that has to foot the bill when you do. Ergo, this becomes a legislatable act.

Bloomberg could also argue that he is not breaking any new ground with his ban on excessive consumption. There’s a limit to how much alcohol you can legally consume in public. There’s even a limit on the size and quantity of the guns you can buy, although how the NRA let that slip through the cracks I’ll never know.

Moderation is a good lesson, and it applies to just about everything in life. If learned, we might begin to adopt other novel behaviors as well, such as choosing a restaurant based on flavor, not the holy grail of “portion size.”

As a matter of fact, there’s only one reason I can think of not to enact a ban on mega sodas: This is America.

And no matter how obnoxious or inexplicable the behavior of chain-chugging sugared beverages might be, we all have the right to our own free swill. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes we want a big drink for the simple reason that we’re really thirsty. A porky pre-teen in the Bronx is not sufficient reason to dictate consumption for the masses.

Further, you have to wonder when a ban on big drinks becomes a ban on a second slice of pie. And when does that evolve into caloric ration books issued by the government? And deprived of drinks, I would assume sugar addicts would simply turn to candy and cakes. Little Debbie will welcome them with open arms.

Personally, I don’t mind men and women of ample carriage. I think it would be a pretty dull planet it we were all 5’10,” 160.

But if we are determined to pursue this course of the state as our own personal trainer, the government initiative to encourage play and exercise is probably the more logical approach. It enables instead of prevents. It says yes instead of no. It has many other health benefits (mental as well as physical) that a kid won’t get by going cold turkey on Dr. Pepper. It’s why we should be supporting parks and bike paths and hiking trails and anything that gets people off the couch and into the fresh air.
And who knows? Forty years from now, we might conclude that sugar is no more harmful to you than salt.


Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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