The Big Sugar-COVID connection

Did Sugar add to the COVID-19 body count?

As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to ease in the United States — though it continues to rage in India and other countries — Americans have breathed a sigh of relief and counted their blessings.

And the casualties.

More than 585,000 Americans have died as a result of the virus, many of whom suffered from health conditions that made them more vulnerable. The list of “comorbidities” is long, but two of them are directly related to the increasing amount of sugar in the typical American diet — diabetes and obesity.

While people with diabetes are not necessarily more likely to contract COVID-19, if they get it they are more likely to have serious complications, including sepsis and shock as a result of diabetic ketoacidosis, commonly experienced by people with Type 1 diabetes.

Then there’s obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an astonishing 78 percent of those hospitalized for COVID-19 were overweight or obese. They’re also at greater risk for winding up in the intensive care unit, and dying.

And here’s the thing: Obesity rates actually rose during the pandemic, with one survey showing 42 percent of U.S. adults have experienced undesired weight gain during the pandemic, with an average gain of 29 pounds.

Blame stress. Blame working from home and all the opportunities for snacking.

But also, blame the American food industry — including Big Sugar.

The average American eats about 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, some 57 pounds per year, far exceeding recommended limits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines limit added sugar to 200 calories, or about 12 teaspoons, for a 2,000-calorie diet. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day for women, and 9 for men; the World Health Organization recommends no more than 10% of an adult’s daily caloric intake — and ideally just 5% — come from added sugar or natural sugars in fruit juice, syrups or honey. For a 2,000 calorie diet, that’s about 6 teaspoons.

In addition to diabetes and obesity, a growing body of research connects overconsumption of added sugars to heart and liver disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and it’s even been tied to depression.

Sugar was bad for our collective health long before COVID-19 came along.

And it almost certainly played a role in the high body count from COVID-19.

Now, as additional COVID deaths occur (albeit at slower pace), public health officials are calling for Americans to slash their sugar consumption, and some are demanding the U.S. government rethink dietary guidelines and lower the daily recommended calories from sugar.

But that’s an uphill climb when the sugar industry “destroys American health for profit,” as Dr. Casey Means and Grady Means wrote in a Feb. 17 article in The Hill.

They called on President Joe Biden to “declare a food war” and require the USDA to heed advice from its own scientific advisory committee which recommended the daily calories from sugar be lowered from 10% to 6% of the diet.

And they cited research suggesting the processed food industry is “systematically using sugar-laced foods to engender food addictions and aiming them disproportionately at children and the poor.”

Or, as researchers from Syracuse University put it, Big Sugar’s “bottom line depends on us consuming their products so much that we become sick.”

Indeed, researchers say the industry is is a “manufacturer of illness” which advertises sugary products to kids, adds sugar to everyday products we don’t think of as sweets (like granola bars, low-fat yogurt and bread) and lobbies policymakers “to enact policies that subsidize the sugar industry and promote the consumption of high-sugar foods.”

This cannot go on.

With your help, it won’t.

While we can’t know how many fewer Americans would have died if they’d consumed less of Big Sugar’s product, we can take steps to limit the industry’s political clout, and push for policies that help Americans consume less sugar and live healthier lives.

Sugar price supports and import quotas, included in the Farm Bill passed roughly every five years, can be discontinued. Why does the U.S. government prop up the profits of giant corporations, such as U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, that produce a product that threatens public health?

Federal nutrition guidelines can reduce the recommended daily amount of added sugar in our diets.

And voters can reject politicians that take money from Big Sugar.

Hasn’t Big Sugar done enough damage — to our environment, and to our health?