TAKING A CLOSER LOOK AT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN FOODS ARE RATIONED
While many Americans view Cinco de Mayo as a day to feast on nachos, tacos and burritos, another food is closely tied to this date that has nothing to do with the 1862 Mexican victory at the Battle of Pueblo. Wartime sugar rationing began in the U.S. on May 5, 1942.
Sugar bowls quickly disappeared from restaurant tables as honest Americans struggled to get by on the half pound of sugar per person per week their “sugar stamps” allowed them to purchase. This was about half their usual pre-war intake.
We all know that since the end of World War II sugar consumption has escalated well beyond those 52 pounds a year our forefathers enjoyed before it started. We also know that rates of obesity have increased during that same time period. Due to this correlation, some people believe sugar is uniquely responsible for obesity. Of course, many other things about our way of life have also changed over the last 5 decades that make it easy to gain weight, but more importantly, correlation ≠ cause.
As I considered the implications of the rationing that began on this day 80 years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if we rationed sugar again? Would it help the 66 percent of Americans who are overweight or obese shed some of their excess pounds? Would it reverse the frightening increase in the incidence of type 2 diabetes afflicting children? Would it make us choose healthier foods to replace the sweet desserts and drinks we now enjoy?
My guess is it would not.
Based on my 35+ years providing diet therapy and nutrition education to clients and consumers, I do not believe rationing sugar, or even removing it from the food supply, would solve our health and weight-related problems. Here’s why.
- Prohibiting a food does not reduce our desire for it. The reason the foods and drinks eaten only on holidays take on such importance to us is that they are not served at any other time of the year. They become more highly valued as a result.
- The demand for something sweet will be met by something else. It could be anything from an exotic fruit nectar to a chemical spray for the tongue that makes sour foods taste sweet, but the void will be filled. What we have no way of knowing is whether the alternative will be better than what we gave up.
- Millions of people who do not abuse sugar are obese. Removing this one ingredient from the food supply will not help them or the millions yet to be born who will need a multi-faceted strategy to deal with this multi-causal problem.
So when I read about efforts to tax sugar-sweetened drinks, or limit their serving sizes, or put warning labels on them, I wonder, “What will policy-makers try next when they realize restricting sugar didn’t change anything?” Maybe they’ll borrow another idea from the war years and ration gasoline – at least that would help us all get more exercise!
Disclosure: I am a consultant to The Coca-Cola Company and the Calorie Control Council, but the opinions expressed here are my own.