The food finger-waggers were out in full force in Los Angeles
yesterday. At a committee hearing more akin to a three-ring circus, state senators “explored” a supposed
link between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity.
The hearing, called by
state senator Alex Padilla, featured “Twinkie tax” creator Kelly Brownell and
a gaggle of other public health activists lining up to “prove” the link
while congratulating the panel for its “historic” hearing. The senate panel
members played the part by showing their shock and outrage, with one senator
absurdly declaring that “I would like to end the Pepsi
Ultimately, of course, this kangaroo court was looking to lay
the framework for government intervention. Brownell, true to form,
happily served up the goods by offering his pet penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened
beverages as an action the legislature should consider.
All the showboating missed the larger picture: Sweetened beverages are not a
unique contributor to obesity, and taxing them is not an effective way to slim
waistlines. Sweetened beverages account for a very small amount of our
caloric intake. A scientific review published last year
in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition evaluated the evidence of
12 major studies and found virtually no association between
the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and children’s weight. And a
study published online just last week found no association between sugar-sweetened beverage
consumption and youth weight gain over a 5-year period.
How ludicrous were some of yesterday’s proceedings? One senator showed
incredulity at the notion that calories from one type of food are the
same as calories from another. But it’s true—calories are simply a measure of energy,
whether they’re found in apple juice, soda, or a soy latte. And
blaming soda for obesity misses the fact that drinks like apple juice actually have
more calories per ounce than soda.
If lawmakers really want to get serious about rising obesity rates, a
good place to start would be educating people about balancing calories “in” with
calories “out,” and making sure that everyone gets enough of the latter.
Singling out one kind of beverage or food for a public flogging scores easy PR
points, but it’s not going to make a dent in the public’s pants size. You’d
think a publicity-adrenaline junkie like Padilla would know how to tone it down
every so often. But you’d be wrong.