A Sweet Deal for the Sugar Industry

January 27, 2017

With millions contributed every year in political donations, the sugar industry sits as one of the most powerful special interest groups in the United States.

By Alex Deitz

Editor’s Note: The Millennial Voices series is written by and for Millennials to foster nonpartisan discussion. Alex Deitz is a senior at the University of Oregon. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Congress hopes to curb sugar intake among Americans through current legislation that requires “added” sugars on nutrition labels and a daily value percentage (DV%) for sugar.

Adding more information about sugar on nutritional labels could make consumers more aware of the health effects from certain products. The World Health Organization (WHO) argues that research shows the intake of added sugars causes health issues like obesity and tooth decay.

The sugar industry, however, is working hard to fight these modifications, and their actions strongly mirror a history of skewed scientific interpretations.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, there is no sugar DV% on nutritional labels because “no recommendations have been made for the total amount to eat in one day.” However, both the WHO and American Heart Association set daily recommendations of sugar intake.

“A new WHO guideline recommends adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits.”

— World Health Organization, March 2015

The health effects of sugar are becoming clearly defined, and yet little action has been taken by policymakers. To ensure the industry’s protection, sugar corporations use a variety of methods to gain political access and influence, including dual party contributions and controlling research agendas.

One example is the sugar industry’s current research position, which is focused on harm reduction rather than sugar restrictions. According to research conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, the sugar industry has a history of protecting itself from potentially damaging research which can inform policymakers.

In an effort to reduce tooth decay, the National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) began researching the effects of sucrose on dental health. Fully aware of the potential harm of this research, the sugar industry adopted “a strategy to deflect attention to public health interventions that would reduce the harms of sugar consumption rather than restricting intake.”

By funding most of the research, the sugar industry was able to modify the research to support their agenda. The conflict of interest that was caused resulted in a missed opportunity for dental research to truly examine all possible measures for eradication of tooth decay. The problem today, however, is that policymakers are still being informed with this research that is at best inaccurate, and at worst, purposefully manipulative.

Another key tactic used by the sugar industry to gain political retributions are bipartisan campaign contributions. According to Open Secrets, of the top ten recipients of sugar cane and sugar beets lobbying, exactly half were republicans and half were democrats. Interest groups like Sugar Cane and Sugar Beet often donate to both political parties based on proximity to power rather than ideology.

Additionally, the money was evenly split between members of the House of Representatives and Senate. The common tie among each recipient, however, is his or her placement on the House or Senate agriculture committees. As various bills affecting the sugar industry have come before Congress, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), it is almost certain that not only did sugar industry lobbying increase, but that they were also bipartisan expenditures.

The sugar industry has a strong history of political influence and a fundamental ability to persuade powerful leaders. Curbing the influence of these special interest groups could create more effective and thoughtful policymaking. As millions of dollars continue to finance politicians and scientific research, the sugar industry will remain one of the most power special interest groups in the United States.

Alex Deitz was a MAP intern and a student at the University of Oregon, majoring in political science with a minor in public speaking. As a Gilman scholar, she spent time studying comparative politics in Russia and has since focused on research in constitutional law.

As a tax-exempt nonprofit organization governed by Section 501©(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, Millennial Action Project (MAP) is generally prohibited from attempting to influence legislative bodies in regards to policy and legislation. It is important to note guest authors frequently take firm stances on issues and policy matters that are currently being debated by policymakers; when they do, however, they speak for themselves and not for MAP, its board, council or employees.

Rep. Sara Jacobs


Be a part of a network of lawmakers committed to governing effectively, passing more representative public policy, and increasing public trust in democracy.