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Should Sugar Be a Controlled Substance?

Americans love sugar. It's a longstanding affair: Christopher Columbus carted sugar cane from the Canary Islands to the Dominican Republic, where the crop thrived, with the unfortunate result of fueling the slave trade. After the industrial revolution made sugar cheaper for the masses, Americans' c...

Americans love sugar. It's a longstanding affair: Christopher Columbus carted sugar cane from the Canary Islands to the Dominican Republic, where the crop thrived, with the unfortunate result of fueling the slave trade. After the industrial revolution made sugar cheaper for the masses, Americans' collective sweet tooth grew even sharper. An 1866 treatise titled "The History of Sugar and Sugar Yielding Plants" estimates that by the advent of the Civil War, we were consuming close to 8 million cwts of sugar a year. (Um...anyone know what a cwt is?)

By 1976, food writers Waverley Root and Richard De Rochemont were bemoaning the palate-numbing prevalence of sugar in American kids' diets:

"How does today's youngster educate his sense of taste? By submerging it in a sea of sugar from the time he gets up to the time he goes to bed. Sugar on his cereal, soft drinks at intervals during the day, sweet between-meal snacks, and, when he sits down at the table, a sweetened beverage with his excessively sweet food. He learns to taste nothing but sugar." (from the book Eating in America)

On the one hand, our cultural lingo suggests sugar is positive: We call people "sweet" or "sugar" as a compliment. We teach our kids to play Candyland, fantasize about chocolate factories, and troll for fistfuls of sweets on Halloween.

On the other hand, the search for a satisfying sugar substitute is over a century old (saccharin was invented in 1879), and demand for artificial sweeteners has grown steadily in the past decade. Last month, the FDA approved the use of Stevia Rebaudiana, an herb native to Central and South America that tastes much sweeter than sugar but has no calories. Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have already launched stevia-based sweeteners, dubbed Truvia and PureVia, respectively.

Despite some controversy about Stevia's safety, consumers are likely to lap it up, because real sugar's reputation has taken some lumps. It has been linked to ugly side effects (cavities, obesity, diabetes, hyperactivity), and scientists recently confirmed our hunch that sugar can be addictive—in other words, the more you eat, the more you want (at least if you're a lab rat).

Now it seems to me that a new cultural attitude is taking root, one that reasons: Sugar is a guilty pleasure, even an unnecessary health risk. It should be kept out of schools and not be marketed to young children. And if you must have it, perhaps you deserve to be taxed (I'll let New York's health commissioner explain that one)...Wait a minute, does this remind you of our attitude toward anything else? Say, beer and cigarettes? Is sugar on the way to becoming a "controlled substance"?

Should it be?

I'd love to hear your thoughts...
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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