The industry calls them SSBs. You know them as sugar-sweetened beverages, and they’re one of the many ways that an overload of sugar enters the average person’s diet. They were just one of the sugar-coated problems addressed when health and science experts met at Harvard Medical School to discuss the effects of sugar — in all its forms, including the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup — on health and public policy.
“How has the knowledge of the metabolic effects of sugar affected policy? What gaps are there in our knowledge of dietary intake of sugar? And, what is the real effect of sweeteners on us? We are trying to identify gaps in our knowledge and inform a policy to move ahead and improve public health,” Harvard Medical School (HMS) Professor of Medicine Steven Grinspoon said before Wednesday’s and Thursday’s symposium, which he co-organized.
Giving the keynote speech at 19th annual Harvard Nutrition and Obesity Symposium, “Epidemilogic, Physiologic, and Policy Considerations of the Sugar Epidemic,” Duke University Professor Kelly Brownell addressed the gap between scientific research and its impact on policy. “You can liken it to a relay race: We think that our work will have the magical effect of someone picking it up from us. But we’re really bad at passing the baton,” he said.
Brownell called for a new model of “strategic research” that would target scientific work at “change agents” such as legislators, courts, the press, the public, and the food industry. As an example of how this can work, he said when fast-food restaurants were required to post their menus’ calorie content and other nutritional information, the industry lobbied for an exemption for drive-through windows. Brownell, then at Yale University, parked outside a local McDonald’s and counted the number of drive-through customers, who seemed to outnumber those inside the restaurant. He then commissioned a formal study and found that drive-through accounted for 60 percent of fast-food business. As a result of his study, the exemption was denied.