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"Sugar: The Bitter Truth" and the Reframing of the Obesity Debate

--Guest post by Nicole Federica, American University student.


News reports tracking the obesity epidemic in the United States offer a range of possible explanations for the problem.  These include government policy, income disparity, food marketing and advertising, a consumption-based culture, individual responsibility, and a lack of easy access to sustainable and healthy food sources.

For many experts, however, building support for specific policy approaches to the problem has proved difficult.  Not only do experts and journalists offer competing explanations of the epidemic’s causes, but audience attention is scattered across many different platforms and outlets.  However, Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics at UC-San Francisco, stands out as a relative success story.

In a YouTube video that has been viewed more than 2 million times,  “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” Lustig offered the provocative theory that sugar – different from other foods – holds special properties that contribute to obesity.  Not all calories are the same.  In fact, sugar stands out as an especially bad source of calories. And according to Lustig, Americans' increased uptake of sugar may be a leading cause of rising obesity rates.

As Gary Taubes explains in an article at the New York Times magazine, “Is Sugar Toxic?,” the success of Lustig’s video lecture “has little to do with Lustig’s impressive credentials and far more with the persuasive case he makes that sugar is a ‘toxin’ or a ‘poison,’ terms he uses together 13 times through the course of the lecture, in addition to the five references to sugar as merely ‘evil.’”

His framing of sugar as a “toxin” inspired discussion and in-depth analysis on what exactly is sugar and how much should we truly be consuming.  As Taubes explains, sugar is both “sucrose —beet and cane sugar, whether white or brown — and high-fructose corn syrup.”  This reframing of sugar as a toxin widely found in our food has had important implications for emerging policy approaches to sugar.

For example, in a Rodale article “Proposed Sugar Tax Aimed at Slimming Down America,” author Leah Zerbe, cites experts who argue that a “a penny per ounce tax could reduce consumption of sugared beverages by more than 10 percent.”  They liken the idea of starting small, focusing on sugary beverages to reduce overall calorie consumption, especially among youth.  As a 2010 Men’s Health magazine article explains, President Obama supports the idea of a possible sugar tax.  As the article explains, “every study that's ever been done about obesity shows that there is as high a correlation between increased soda consumption and obesity as just about anything else. Obviously it’s not the only factor, but it is a major a factor.”

While the sugar debate still remains a controversial topic with evidence that may not be conclusive according to Taubes, Lustig’s lecture in combination with other efforts have helped reframe the debate over obesity and what to do about it.  For experts and advocates looking to breakthrough on other complex problems, Lustig’s case offers a leading model.  You can watch Lustig’s video below.

--Guest post by Nicole Federica, a student in this semester's American University course on  Science, the Environment, and the Media.  Find out more about the MA programs in Public Communication and Political Communication as well as the Doctoral program in Communication.

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