Sugar, the food industry, marketing and informed consumer choice

The Vitality ObeCity Index 2017 (pdf), released in October,  “analysed data from Vitality members living in six cities across South Africa” in order to present an overview of South African eating trends and health statistics. The report describes some positive trends, while highlighting that “we still have a lot to do to combat obesity”.

I contributed three opinion pieces on science communication, the food industry and marketing to children, and the importance of consumers making informed choices. Here’s the second of the three, with the last to follow in the coming days.

There’s no disputing that sugar is a potential impediment to health, with excessive consumption showing clear links to poor health outcomes, and where that consumption is encouraged by the fact that sugar tastes good, and is so calorie-dense.

Despite this, it’s possible to consume sugar in moderation, as many of us do, and if “the dose is the poison” (as Paracelsus argued), the public health consequence is in part clear: encourage healthy choices on the part of consumers, and give them the means by which to do so.

One healthy choice that can be overlooked is that of choosing to be informed (rather than succumbing to marketing hype, or to overblown claims regarding threats posed by our food choices). As important as our physical health is, it’s also important to encourage rational decision-making.

Informed choice can however be confounded by the messaging of a food industry which, after all, exists to be profitable, which adds up to persuading you to buy their products. On the positive end of the spectrum, this might include clear labelling on things like sugar content (including making it clear that “sugar” has various names).

On the negative end, absurdities such as labelling bottled water as “gluten-free, non-GMO, certified kosher, and organic” (as blk. beverages recently did) is clearly exploitative, in that it’s an attempt to piggyback on consumer fears to gain market advantage.

With emotive issues such as our health, a general concern is that we can be worried enough about what we’re eating that we forget that what we buy remains our choice, and that, if people don’t buy certain products, the market will respond to produce what we want them to.

Vitality’s purchasing data, for example, shows that lower-sugar muesli is more popular than the regular offering. If purchasing trends shift sufficiently, the muesli-buyer who isn’t particularly sugar-conscious might end up consuming less sugar, simply because what was once labelled “low-sugar” would end up being the standard offering, with an even lower “low-sugar” product taking its place.

Consumer purchasing choices can influence what we see on the shelves, despite rhetoric around how powerless we are to avoid, for example, sugar “addiction”. More crucially, bear in mind the power of narrative – if you’re constantly told you’re an addict, why be surprised if you start believing it?

Having said that, let us not make the mistake of thinking that information is all that is needed to overcome these panics around what’s in your food (or what’s not). Regulatory responses (such as labels certifying that a food is GMO free) can be a valuable way to encourage informed choice, and minimise potential harms arising from poor choices, but they also carry dangers.

While you might (reasonably) think that they give you the information you need to make a choice that aligns with your preferences, the complication is that the label tells you all you think you need to know, rather than necessarily what you actually need to know.

In other words, if you already believe (contrary to the evidence) that GM foods are harmful, the label merely confirms your prejudices, and instead of encouraging informed choice, it could instead merely affirm or amplify an existing bias, whether that bias is grounded in evidence or not, or is actually in the best interests of your health or not.

A tricky thing about the relationship between the industry and consumers is that consumers certainly do have a right to know what’s in their food, but the problem is that – thanks to our preconceptions, and widespread scientific illiteracy – a fully factual label might not actually tell us what’s in our food, rather than confirm our false beliefs about what’s bad for us and what’s not.

So, to make the relationship work, we need to not just assert ourselves on the basis of exaggerated panics, accompanied by demands that the industry respect our preferences, but rather to educate ourselves, and to present the industry with preferences that are informed and reasonable.

The food industry exists to please us, and have no reason to reject the market-demands of their consumers. If we learned to buy less processed food, containing less sugar, they would adapt to that demand.

So, in the enthusiasm for regulation, let’s not forget the importance of education, and of reminding people that it’s not food per se that kills us, but rather how much of it we eat (and in what proportions) that does.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.