The Sugar Industry Follies

I was reading an article from the web site, The Week, entitled: How sugar became Public Enemy No. 1.

The Sugar Industry Follies

The article tells a story of an industry that shapes our diets with its products and its advertising. A couple of decades ago this industry had a factual problem, that is, sugar makes you fat and you should probably avoid it in almost all eating. According the staff at The Week, the sugar industry decided to create research indicating that fat was the real culprit and then induced the federal government to get on the scent like a bewildered blood hound chasing the wrong villain and launch a nation wide campaign against fat that had no discernable affect on Americans’ weight.

Here’s an excerpt:

The industry launched an aggressive advertising campaign in the 1970s to convince Americans that sugar actually helps you lose weight by suppressing the appetite. “Sugar can be the willpower you need to undereat,” one ad asserted; another recommended eating a cookie before lunch each day. That campaign, combined with work by the Harvard researchers, helped muddy the scientific waters enough to keep dietary sugar guidelines vague. The American Heart Association approved of added sugar as part of a healthy diet, and millions of Americans embraced low-fat, high-sugar diets. Consumption of added sugars soared 30 percent between 1977 and 2010. It’s no coincidence, many nutritionists say, that obesity rates more than doubled over that same period.

If the article is true and I believe it to be, then the industry and the federal campaign it inspired resulted in Americans gaining weight.

This is what I call “negative business ethics.” You do the wrong thing with planning, skill and certainty in execution and you make bundles of money. It’s the kind of immoral lesson conveyed almost incessantly in the business press and much of the media. Yes, the industry did a bad thing but its leadership got multi-million dollar retirements and get to choose among multiple homes how to spend their lives. Their influence in government is immense and people flock to work for them.

Yes, they behaved badly and their actions diminished the lives of millions of Americans and almost certainly led to many deaths but what’s a few Americans compared to the wonders of the free market in action? After all, there is no apparent illegality in misleading the government as to the cause of obesity and, of course, you can always pretend like global warming deniers that the science is still up in the air.

Where is justice in this case? There is none. And businessmen and business schools will absorb the lesson of this. And the lesson is that if you make a product that should or is regulated, you can finance some studies, contribute to some politicians and maybe even get the government to act on your behalf and not only can you evade regulation – you can increase your market share.

James Pilant