Courtesy of Sugar Association
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Courtney Gaine represents a commodity she believes has been unfairly targeted by regulators and inappropriately linked to America’s obesity crisis through emotional arguments and poor science.
Gaine, who holds a Ph.D. in dietetics, was promoted about a year ago to be president and CEO of the Sugar Association, charged with providing a scientific voice on behalf of 12,000 U.S. cane and beet sugar growers. She’s in a familiar role in her current sugar assignment, having helped the nation’s potato industry respond to strikingly similar criticisms a few years ago.
“They’re different foods, but the way they’ve been treated in nutrition policy discussions, there are a lot of parallels there,” Gaine said.
As a former staff member with the consulting firm Food Minds, Gaine assisted the National Potato Council in reversing restrictions on potatoes in the national school lunch program and in the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Gaine said she helped to “package” the narrative that potatoes aren’t just empty carbohydrates, but deliver crucial fiber and potassium.
Gaine said current restrictions could also lead to unintended nutritional consequences by ignoring facts, including that sugar makes healthy foods more palatable. For example, new research for the association finds just 3 calories of sugar is sufficient to mask the bitterness of kale.
Both spuds and sugar have been “villainized” by observational studies without cause-and-effect relationships, she said.
“The potato folks are probably five years ahead of us, and they’ve done the right things. They’ve had some round tables and had some publications that are important and are working on educating the policymakers at USDA,” Gaine said. “It definitely should be a model of how we look to dispel some of the myths around our product.”
Though many blame sugar for rapidly rising U.S. obesity rates, Gaine said the data tells a different story. Added sugars represented 18 percent of calories in the U.S. diet in 2000, compared with 13 percent in 2014, according to USDA. The problem, she said, is that people are eating more — the average U.S. diet now includes 375 more total calories per day than in 1970.
Nonetheless, Gaine said, the federal Food and Drug Administration recently approved nutrition label changes placing the first recommended limits on sugar consumption, suggesting people should get no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugar. She said dietary guidelines are the basis of guidelines for school lunches and federal programs, and there is no scientific basis for the limit. She’ll prioritize changing the guidelines for 2020, and also intends to share with the public the story of sugar growers and how the product is produced.
Duane Grant, a Rupert, Idaho, farmer who serves as chairman of Snake River Sugar Cooperative and also raises potatoes, believes attacks grounded in “punditry” rather than science have set back both commodities. Grant noted sugar has been singled out as the cause of health problems through taxes in some cities on sweetened drinks.
“Carbohydrates from breads and calories from fat have exploded, but you don’t see New York City placing a special tax on bacon and hamburger buns,” Grant said.
The potato industry recently launched a campaign touting the benefits of consuming spuds for athletic performance. Gaine, who played shooting guard for the University of Connecticut basketball team, said sugar can make a similar claim, as athletes commonly consume sports drinks and other sources of sugar for a quick pick-up during competition.