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More soda than your stomach can handle – Big Gulp America

This whole debate over taxing sodas as a means to address obesity is driving me nuts. I have no doubt that overconsumption of sugar-laden drinks has profoundly affected the skyrocketing obesity and diabetes problem in this country. Sodas are empty calories, and, quite frankly do they even quench your thirst with all that sugar in them? I say that because as an insulin-dependent diabetic (diagnosed decades ago, in my late teens; it’s on both sides of my family and neither of my parents were obese), I’ve not consumed a regular soda in so long I’ve forgotten what they taste like.

Do people really want to consume a 128 oz. Team Gulp as a meal, let alone with a meal? Look at this chart from the Mother Jones article, “Too Big to Chug: How Our Sodas Got So Huge.” These fast-food, convenience store chains must think so.

Writer Azeen Ghorayshi chronicles the timeline of the growth of these Gulps, and it’s pretty astonishing.  In 1980 7-Eleven started selling the 32-ounce Big Gulp; I thought that was as super-sized as any drink could get. I guess I don’t get out much because I missed this launch of epic corporate gastronomic irony in 2011:

KFC introduces a drink so big that it has a bucket handle to carry it. In what can only be a cruel joke on humankind, for every Mega Jug purchased, KFC promises it will donate $1 to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

…And that’s not even the worst of it. Franchises like 7-Eleven, Arco, and the unfortunately named Midwestern chain Kum & Go have all offered drinks upwards of 85 ounces. (To put this in perspective, this is around three times the capacity of a normal human stomach.)

What is wrong with consumers? I simply cannot understand why anyone would want to down that much sugar at a sitting. No wonder record numbers of us supersized and malnourished at the same time.  It’s notable that in Japan, McDonald’s standard sizes for soda’s are much smaller (click over for that graph). So I understand the desire to tax people into healthier choices by adding soda to the list of “sin” items, but honestly, I don’t know if it will actually result in reduced consumption if people are this addicted to sugar.

In a companion piece, “Why Diet Soda Should Be Taxed, Too,” Sarah Zhang asserts that science points to sugar-free sodas being “gateways” to more caloric consumption and thus should be added to the sin pile.

Diet soda may be bad precisely because it has no sugar and fewer calories. When you eat something sweet, researchers have argued, your body comes to expect a caloric boost. Low or no calorie artificial sweeteners could screw up this link in the brain.

While the above may generally be true, I certainly don’t find myself craving refined sugar (knowing what it does to one’s blood glucose levels) or high-calorie food. It would be interesting to see if they included diabetics in this study, since obesity and type II diabetes go hand in hand in many cases. I’m a consumer of a garden variety of artificial sweeteners: saccharine, aspartame, Splenda, Stevia. Probably a couple of others. They all probably have some impact on my health long-term, it’s hard to say, but I know I don’t miss sugar’s additional empty calories when all carbohydrates affect one’s blood glucose.

The main point of the article, however, is to try to make the case that sugar substitutes contribute to the the War on Fat, even as corporate America — the sugar lobby vs. the artificial sweetener lobby — pummel each other to try to mitigate their products’ impact on American waistlines and protect their profits.

Advocates of recent soda regulation are a third voice who have have criticized the health effects of sugar and high fructose corn syrup alike. (The two are chemically very similar.) But lingering concerns about artificial sweeteners are why soda regulation advocates might want to be careful with how they make their case against sugar and HFCS. Advocates such as Dr. Robert Lustig have argued it was the war on fat that drove us to overconsumption of sweet. By a similar logic, vilify sugar or HFCS as poison and you run the risk of pushing people into artificial sweeteners as a “healthy” alternative.

Health concerns of artificial sweeteners do add a twist to the recent debate over sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). All the studies mentioned so far come from independent researchers, but the sugar lobby has tried to heap its own criticism on competitors. The Truth About Splenda, for example, is a Sugar Association website that prominently displays a study about Splenda altering bacteria in the stomachs of rats. This study was funded by the Sugar Association, a crucial fact whose only mention is buried in an outside news article reproduced on the website. (Or you could pony up $43 to read it in the paywalled journal article.)  As least it refrains from repeating the claim that artificial sweeteners cause cancer, which has been fairly thoroughly debunked.

Many high fructose corn syrup manufacturers also make artificial sweeteners.

The sugar industry’s criticism of Splenda is interesting given its feud with the corn industry that produces high fructose corn syrup. The two industries have historically been at odds, with HFCS having replaced sugar as the sweetener of choice in soda and pretty much everything else. Many of these corn companies make both high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. There is a practical reason for this link: Artificial sweeteners are up to hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, so the bulk of a Splenda or Sweet’N Low packet is actually dextrose or maltodextrin, food addictives derived from corn. Tate & Lyle, for example, manufactures Splenda along with a whole host of corn derivatives including corn syrup and dextrose—all of which compete with sugar.

Honestly, most foods or beverages in moderation aren’t going to kill you (well, unless you’re diabetic, don’t take your meds and ingest Big Gulps with abandon), but the question  is why are Americans bellying up and ingesting food in such insane proportions? It seems that it’s a losing battle when it comes to solid foods as well. Americans have maxed out on super-sized meals, so the fast-food industry is trying to sell us on the Fourth Meal. WTF? From David Sirota’s “Big Food’s Latest Ploy to Get Richer While Making Americans Fatter” –

One predictable result of this trend is an obesity rate that’s poised to top 40 percent and that already costs the nation hundreds of billions of dollars in additional healthcare expenditures. The other result is that the super-size campaign has become a victim of its own success. Indeed, food companies are coming to realize that, in terms of per-meal product sales, they are quickly approaching the point where the human body simply cannot — or will not — accommodate any more calories in a single sitting. That has left Big Food fretting about a profit-making path forward, and that’s where the innovators at Yum! Brands come in.

Known for ignoring public health concerns and pioneering weapons-grade junk food, this conglomerate’s subsidiaries have most recently given us the cheeseburger-stuffed pizza (Pizza Hut), the Dorito-shelled taco (Taco Bell), and the “Double Down” (KFC) — a bacon and cheese sandwich that replaces bread with slabs of deep-fried chicken. So it should come as no surprise that with the three meals hitting their caloric max-out point, Yum! Brands has been leading the effort to add a whole new gorging session to America’s daily schedule.

The campaign is called “fourth meal” and was originally launched in a series of Taco Bell spots telling kids that “everyone is a fourth mealer — some just don’t know it yet.”

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding