ADVERTISING

Refining sugar’s image

ANNE STEACY February 24 1986
ADVERTISING

Refining sugar’s image

ANNE STEACY February 24 1986

Refining sugar’s image

ADVERTISING

On average, Canadians consume 90 lb. of sugar each per year, a sweet indulgence that nutritionists, dentists and physicians blame for a range of problems including obesity, tooth decay and hyperactivity. But now the sugar industry—facing low market prices and increased competition from artificial sweeteners—is fighting back. The Canadian Sugar Institute, representing the country’s three largest sugar refiners, has launched a controversial $l-million advertising campaign to combat the “sugar-free” spree in the market. Declared institute president Robert Thompson: “Anti-sugar advertising is all intended to exploit the public’s misconceptions and capitalize on the myths and fears about sugar.”

The glossy two-page advertisements, currently running in eight magazines aimed at women readers, under the bold headlines “Diet Food” and “Sweet & Innocent,” promote sugar as a natural source of energy. One ad states that, contrary to popular belief, a teaspoon of sugar contains a “measly 16 calories” and questions the wisdom of using artificial substitutes. The other ad contradicts the notion that sugar in itself is the leading cause of tooth decay, blaming poor dental hygiene and snacking instead. It also disputes the opinions of some researchers that sugar can cause hyperactivity in children.

Although their effect on the public is not yet known, the ads have already proved controversial among dentists and health experts. Said Ralph Burgess, head of preventive dentistry at the University of Toronto: “Sugar is still the major cause of tooth decay. By implication, the ads are saying you can take it as often as you want, and that is misleading.” And Toronto dietician Marsha Sharp, executive director of the Canadian Dietetic Association, declared, “Sugar is a big factor in tooth decay; their statement has gone beyond what I would accept.” As for weight loss, she added that table sugar can be cut from a diet without reducing nutrient intake.

On the other hand, many experts agree with the sugar producers’ stand on hyperactivity. Carleton University psychologist Bruce Ferguson cited recent studies—including his own—of the effects of sugar on the behavior of children. The results, he said, contradicted “the popular notion that if children eat sugar they turn into gorillas.” Added Dr. Keith Drummond,

physician-in-chief of the Montreal Children’s Hospital and chairman of pediatrics at McGill University: “Much of the bad publicity about sugar has come from food faddists. The idea of refining something is anathema to them—but that’s a religion, not a science.”

For the sugar companies, the motives behind the current campaign are simply economic. World production of sugar has outstripped demand since 1974, and the world price of sugar has declined from 54 cents to its current level of 6 cents per pound. At the same time, the members of the sugar institute—BC Sugar of Vancouver, Redpath Sugars of Toronto and Lantic Sugar of Montreal—have been hit hard by aggressive competition from artificial sweeteners. Indeed, G.D. Searle & Co. of Canada Ltd., which manufactures and sells Equal, a sweetener containing aspartame, is spending close to $1 million this year on marketing. What is more, the sugar industry could suffer even more next year when Searle’s aspartame patent expires in Canada and other producers are free to enter the market. Consumer health controversies aside, the refiners clearly decided it was time to protect the soundness of their own industry.

— ANNE STEACY in Toronto