A COP Vs. Calories: How (Less) Sweet It Would Be

person pouring powdered sugar in a bowl

In the spirit of Thanksgiving gourmandizing and the recent COP26 climate conference, might I suggest a global summit to de-calorize our environment? For as surely as the planet is warming, prompting calls to de-carbonize, we’re getting fatter and only scientific guesswork can tell us which will doom more of us.

The body mass problem that crescendos in morbid obesity has multiple causes. Lack of regular exercise is a big one. But chronic overeating of the wrong kind of diet is the easiest to identify, and to simplify that further, let’s focus on carbohydrates, especially sugar.  What if, along with the carbon from fossil fuels, the world was on a tear to minimize consumption of what the package labels call added sugars?

This would occupy the nutrition authorities for all their waking days because sugars are, like other taste-bud triggers salt and fats, melded into so many prepared and processed foods. Often, the sweetener is not hiding—dessert treats and many beverages are swimming in it. (Artificial substitutes, which probably do less damage, just don’t cut it with many who crave the taste.) The more diabolical sugar presence is in items that are marketed with the pretense of healthfulness—natural, organic, gluten-free (looking at you, Costco!) Just try to find a cereal, including granola, that doesn’t load you up out of the box.

Not enough of us are ready for morning oatmeal without something to liven it up, and fresh fruit takes some forethought. I wish bakeries at least would offer more reduced-sugar choices. The global summiteers could trumpet cultures that have found other ways to flavor dark breads, and I don’t mean molasses. Why undo the good of whole grains?

The health train-wreck of mass obesity—usually a slow-moving killer–was made acute by the Covid-19 pandemic, where this was the number one co-morbidity across all age groups. Yet the official warnings seemed understated, as if the truth is indelicate to say too loud or too often. This is a point that the comedian Bill Maher, who is generally sound on diet, is unafraid to make. An even more reliable scold is my former Wall Street Journal colleague Matt Rees, whose website and email blasts are full of food factoids. Of course, there are many credentialed specialists making this case, including Prof. Marion Nestle. Last summer, she blogged on the good news that the total U.S. sugar intake actually has been declining for 20 years, attributable to less use of high-fructose corn syrup. But refined varieties have filled some of that gap, and the overall consumption is still way too high.

Big Sugar, like Big Oil, is a mighty counterforce facing any international campaign. Yet the stakes for most of the globe’s people are rising. Just as energy use jumps with affluence, so does body weight. The last I checked, only Vietnam among the significant developing countries had managed to keep average counts down in recent years as GDP rose. (I hope this is not because of a large poor and thin population.) So the issue is waiting for its appealing young tribunes, like those for “climate action,” and for media echoes similarly to reverberate. Shared sacrifice, anyone?

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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