Sifting through the science, politics of sugar

Pictured, left to right, FYS students Eloise Peabbles, Jerard Fredette, Anna Blumenthal, Professor Laura Muller, Peter Green, Sierra Luciano and Krista Van Bruggen
Pictured, left to right, FYS students Eloise Peabbles, Jerard Fredette, Anna Blumenthal, Professor Laura Muller, Peter Green, Sierra Luciano and Krista Van Bruggen

In March, the World Health Organization announced guidelines on sugar consumption, recommending that sugar intake not exceed 5 percent of total daily calories. That’s a challenge, considering that Americans are consuming more added sugar than ever, points out Associate Professor of Chemistry Laura Muller. In 1980, the per capita consumption was about 120 pounds per year. The U.S. Census Bureau now reports that Americans eat 132 pounds per year. Muller and her students took a look at the science and politics of sugar during her fall semester First-Year Seminar (FYS), “How Sweet It Is?” We recently talked to her about their work together.

Tell us about your FYS.

We examined the science and politics surrounding the sugar controversy. Our class began by looking at the USDA Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which gives guidelines about the sugar content in federally funded school lunches and snacks (the USDA “Smart Snacks” guidelines came out just before the beginning of our class). We also discussed the New York City Board of Health’s proposed ban on large soft drinks (which was struck down over the summer), as well as proposed taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and food. We aimed our discussions at deciding if the Wheaton campus “needs” a sugar policy. We looked at what basic science and epidemiology say about sugar metabolism and its effects on the human body. We read some leading authors on sugar metabolism, who have found links between sugar consumption and metabolic disease, the symptoms of which include, but are not limited to, hypertension and diabetes. On the other hand, we read some epidemiological studies that find the link between sugar consumption and disease to be less conclusive. We had to learn to discern which studies showed causality of disease and those that showed correlations between behavior and disease. We also looked at why and how American sugar consumption has increased in the past 50 to 60 years, such as the increase in the availability and desirability of processed food. Finally, we began to think about whether we need to make changes in sugar consumption in our own Wheaton microcosm, and, if so, how we would go about that.

What led you to focus on this subject?

When I begin to think about teaching FYS, I think about topics that will interest students and get them to challenge themselves in their first semester of college. I want a subject that will allow my students to work with several competing points of view. I also want them to think about how, as we integrate knowledge we get from different disciplinary perspectives, our own perspectives become more nuanced. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s the medical perspective was that fat was bad; now there are clinical studies showing that one way to keep our blood sugar from spiking after eating a food with a moderately high sugar content is to eat the sugar with some fat (this fact should make some chocolate mousse lovers happy). My students, who know about low-fat eating, were troubled by this finding. (For the record, both Robert Lustig, a scientist known for both his scientific studies of the relationship between sugar consumption and metabolic disease and his pro-sugar tax stand, and Michael Moss, a journalist known for writing Sugar Salt Fat, note that in order to make low-fat food palatable, food companies had to increase the sugar content in those same foods.)

Why is sugar such a big deal?

The obesity rates among adults and among children more than doubled in the last 20 years. Obesity-related disease and metabolic syndrome (a combination of factors that multiply a person’s risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke) are on the rise. Several studies document a cause-and-effect relationship between sugar consumption and disease.

Tell us about the work of students.

Our FYS summer assignment was to read the “Sugar” section of Michael Moss’s book and to generate questions for food manufacturers. I asked students to talk about the issues raised with the people in their lives before they came to Wheaton, too. These discussions at home helped us segue into the class material and helped give us a blueprint for the semester. One of my personal goals for this FYS was to have the students decide whether Wheaton needs a “sugar policy” like the USDA “Smart Snacks” guidelines for schools receiving subsidies from the federal school lunch program. One of the pieces of information my students felt they needed was information about what Wheaton students actually eat, and where. So they spent a day surveying students in the Chase dining hall about eating habits and concerns about food on campus. They found that Wheaton students want more consistent food labeling on campus, including “more comprehensible” information on portion sizes. After five days of monitoring food labeling in the dining halls, they decided to petition for changes to labeling. They wrote a rationale and set up a table outside of Balfour-Hood to get signatures in support of their petition. The petition has been sent to Aramark, SGA and the Dean of Students office. Students report that they already see more consistent labeling in Chase. It didn’t escape my notice that the FDA had Michelle Obama announce the development of new food-labeling guidelines this winter. My students were ahead of the curve!