Congress should restrict sugar in food supply

European supermarket giant Tesco has announced it will no longer retail sugar-filled products at some 2,500 stores in response to the increasing adverse health consequences related to uncontrolled sugar consumption. This is a marketing decision U.S. retailers should voluntarily follow to improve diets and promote better health.

Diabetes, heart disease, stroke and obesity, are some of the known health problems associated from uncontrolled consumption of heavily sugared products. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates Americans consume an unhealthy 150 pounds of sugar annually.

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Consumption of sugar is based on sophisticated marketing by sugar producers and food companies who load sugar into retail products as diverse as infant formula, fruit and vegetable juices, milk, flavored instant oatmeal, child-popular breakfast cereals and canned fruits and vegetables.

It is virtually impossible to buy foods in mainstream retail stores that are sugar-free. Congress allowed this “sugarization” of the U.S. food supply and unless marketers reduce the sugar content of their products, Congress should consider legislation to do it for them.   

Reportedly, Tesco’s customers lobbied the retailer to remove the unhealthy sugar products due to demand from kids, conditioned by marketers, to demand candies and confections in the sugar sections of their stores and in the checkout aisle.

U.S. food and retail marketers, like their European counterparts, invested heavily with money and strategic shelf and store placement of sugar products so children could see them and demand their parents buy them. Expensive TV advertising also played prominently in Big Sugar’s malicious marketing assault on children’s health. Government has taken a blind eye to this sugar industry attack on children and vulnerable adult shoppers who lack willpower to ignore the sophisticated marketing of unhealthy products.

U.S. food retailers should immediately follow Tesco’s bold sugar-free market leadership and remove the abundant and unhealthy sugar-filled products from their store shelves. Such a move would nicely complement First Lady Michelle Obama’s healthy foods initiative for our nation’s children.

If U.S. food retailers fail to act in response to consumer demand for healthier food products, Congress should help them with this decision for the sake of consumers who cannot make healthy food choices on their own. Congress made the decision to regulate hazardous tobacco products and limit tobacco availability to consumers. They should act similarly with sugar, another product known to be a health hazard.  Regulation and reduction of sugar consumption, might also reduce the cost of Congress's scandalously massive sugar program.

Tesco plans to replace sugar-filled products with healthier food options including dried fruits, nuts and popular seed snacks, like sunflower and pumpkin seeds. If U.S. retailers respond similarly this will send healthy food signals to U.S. producers, especially in California. With almond production on the increase in California, largely for export markets, growers can take advantage of a new market opportunity for healthier foods and expand domestic consumption for their crop.  

Reducing the amount of sugar in food products is responsible marketing. If U.S. companies, including retailers like Walmart, Target and Safeway, feel they cannot do this, Congress should legislate responsibly and vastly reduce the amount of sugar in our food supply. Such actions would increase consumer confidence in our food marketing system and support healthier lifestyles.

Longtime Washington diplomat James Patterson, an international agricultural economist, writes and speaks on trade and technology from his San Francisco office.