Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter


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Sugar Emerges As The New Dietary Villain

Saturated fat and sodium have been repeatedly criticized for decades now for a variety of alleged negative health impacts. Now, the emergence of sugar as a new dietary villain promises a mixed bag of impacts for the dairy industry.

By now, the impacts of the long-running wars on saturated fat and sodium are well-known in the dairy industry. These impacts include, among other things: consumers (at least some of them) switching from full-fat to reduced-fat, lowfat and fat-free dairy products (especially fluid milk) and reduced-sodium cheeses; lawmakers passing legislation to hasten these consumer changes (such as eliminating whole milk from school food programs); and food labels now requiring the listing of saturated fat and sodium content.

Now, some public health advocates, government officials and others are going after sugar. This is a bit of a problem for the dairy industry simply because the industry’s raw material, milk, naturally contains sugar, in the form of lactose. Indeed, the lactose content of cow’s milk is around 5 percent.

Milk is hardly alone in containing natural sugar. Dietary recommendations for years have advised greater consumption of fruits and vegetables, all of which contain at least a little sugar (some vegetables contain almost no sugar), and some of which contain quite a bit of sugar.

Attacks against sugar these days are taking several forms. There have been several proposals floated in recent years that would tax sugar specifically or sugar-sweetened beverages or soft drinks in particular.

Last month, the city of Berkeley, CA, became the first city to approve such a tax; in Berkeley’s case, it’s a tax of one cent per ounce on the distribution in Berkeley of sugar-sweetened beverages and the added-calorie sweeteners used to make them.

Notably, beverages in which milk is the primary ingredient are not subject to the tax.

Also, the US Food and Drug Administration, in its proposal to update the Nutrition Facts label released earlier this year, proposed to require information about “added sugars” (in addition to the information about “sugars” that’s already required) on the new Nutrition Facts label. That proposal has garnered both a considerable amount of support as well as a considerable amount of opposition.

And the new focus on sugar, and added sugar in particular, is bringing with it a new focus on sugar-related research. For example, as reported on page 9 in this week’s issue, evidence published in the online journal Open Heart concludes that added sugars in processed foods are likely to have a greater role in high blood pressure and heart disease and stroke than added salt.

Also, as we reported back in our November 14th issue, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have launched a research and education initiative, dubbed SugarScience, that aims to highlight scientific findings on added sugar and its impact on health.

Added sugar is defined as any caloric sweetener that is added to food preparation, at the table, in the kitchen or in a processing plant.

So what will this added emphasis on sugar mean for the dairy industry? It’s too soon to predict with any certainty, but it seems that there are at least three possible dairy-related impacts.

First, this increased emphasis on sugar could bode well for at least a few dairy products, such as cheese, butter and plain yogurt, that contain little or no sugar, either added or naturally occurring.

For cheese and butter, this would be a particularly sweet outcome (pardon the expression), since those products have taken a beating for several decades because they contain two other dietary villains, namely saturated fat and sodium. Being able to have a zero after both “Sugars” and “Added Sugars” certainly won’t hurt either cheese or butter products.

As far as fluid milk is concerned, well, it’s difficult to see how this growing focus on sugar can possibly help a product that’s already been struggling in the marketplace for years. Yes, the sugar in regular milk is naturally occurring, but as with any dietary villain, many consumers will take a simplistic approach and just look for products that are completely free of sugar. Score another victory for bottled water.

These days, fluid milk is more than just plastic gallon bottles. For one thing, chocolate milk contains added sugar, so one point of differentiation that’s occurring now in chocolate milk is lower amounts of added sugar.

These products will have a particular edge in the marketplace if FDA ends up requiring the listing of “added sugars” on the Nutrition Facts label.

Also, new products coming onto the market have what might be thought of as “altered” sugar contents. For example, Coca-Cola Company is going to be marketing fairlife cold filtered milk, which has six grams of sugar per serving but no lactose.

And then there are products like yogurt, which are coming under a fair amount of criticism for being relatively high in sugar. Even plain (unflavored) yogurt contains some sugar, and it’s also unpalatable to most consumers.

And flavored yogurts are much more palatable (as evidenced by the skyrocketing production and consumption over the past quarter-century), but also can be relatively high in added sugar, not to mention total sugar.

Like the saturated fat and sodium controversies, the sugar saga holds both opportunities and challenges for the dairy industry. DG

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