Sugar is added to more than 75% of products in your grocery store. It may sound hard to believe, and is horrifying considering the negative health effects of eating too much sugar. But it's true - according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, sugar is the most popular ingredient added to foods in the U.S.A.
Why sugar is in nearly every processed food
Here are 4 big reasons why sugar is the popular ingredient for producers of packaged and processed foods.
Sugar tastes good, dang it...
The biggest reason why sugar is added to most processed foods is the most simple: people love things that taste sweet.
Our attraction to sweetness is a direct result of our biology and evolution. Most importantly, sugar is high-calorie carbohydrate food for our cells. A lot of foods, especially plants, contain carbohydrates that can be broken down into fuel. A sugar called glucose allows cells to convert food energy into energy the cell can use. So eating sugar is a really efficient way to get cell energy. But here’s the kicker – sweet things are pretty rare in nature, so our bodies evolved a way to make sure we ate as much sugar as possible when it was available.
A powerful pleasure-reward mechanism in your brain makes you feel good whenever you eat something sweet. I’ll explain this process in more detail below, but put simply – your brain rewards you with a feel-good chemical called dopamine that acts to reinforce the behavior as a habit.
Objectively speaking, sweet tastes are no more appealing than bitter, sour or savory ones, but because sweetness is associated with easy energy, we are naturally drawn to it.
Sugar is cheap.
How cheap is sugar? It’s so cheap that you can walk into any restaurant and just about help yourself to as much sugar as you please, for free. Sugar commodity prices have been really low for the past several decades, generally staying below $0.20 USD per pound (currently around $0.16 USD per pound).
Sugar is not easy to produce, though. Phillip Hayes, spokesman for the American Sugar Alliance, describes the sugar beet production process like this:
“Fields are cultivated. Beet seeds are planted. Crops are sprayed to beat back weeds and critters. Machinery breaks down and is repaired. Producers pray that Mother Nature will cooperate. Harvest starts and runs 24 hours a day for the better part of a month. … Beets are hauled to piling stations and stacked high for storage. They are sliced and squeezed to extract sugar juice, then cleaned, boiled, and finally crystallized. Sophisticated machinery and a team of employees package, sort, and load sugar onto trucks and railcars for delivery. Oh yeah, there's also a slew of marketers and logistics gurus who sell the sugar and figure out how to get it to different parts of the country at the exact time it is needed. There are a lot of man-hours that go into a single sugar packet.”
Then why so cheap? Many factors contribute to the low cost, including the size and maturity of the industry, economies of scale and government agriculture policies. In the US, agricultural policies like subsidies and import tariffs play a major role. In particular, the US Government spends billions of dollars every year to prop up corn farming.
Between 1995 and 2012, US corn subsidies totaled $84.4 billion. This staggering amount of money is what makes corn the #1 farming crop in the country. Because of the generous subsidies, corn sells for far less than it actually costs to produce it. Corn is an incredibly versatile crop that is used in everything from food to cosmetics to car part and fuel. What does corn have to do with sugar?
The most infamous corn product is high fructose corn syrup, the sweetener of choice for fast food restaurants and manufacturers of processed foods and soft drinks. Being far cheaper than cane sugar, which is made more expensive by import tariffs, this sweet syrup accounts for more than half of the sugar market, thanks in part to the US government's support.
Sugar is addictive.Our bodies are instinctively attracted to sweet tastes because sugar is great fuel for our cells. Whenever you eat sugar, your rewards you by releasing dopamine, a brain chemical that has many effects in terms of regulating emotions, motivation, attention and more. But basically, dopamine make you feel good. Here are some activities that stimulate dopamine:
- Doing exercise
- Achieving a goal (as in video games)
- Positive social experiences
- Having sex
- Playing music
- Eating certain foods
- Taking certain drugs
Whenever you do something that releases dopamine, that good feeling reinforces the behavior that caused it, helping create a habit, or in extreme cases, addiction. In a famous and controversial study, groups of rats were given either a sweetener or cocaine. 94% of the rats – even the ones addicted to cocaine, chose the sweet water, even when they had the choice of cocaine! The researchers state that,
“In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet [foods]. The [excessive] stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a [excessive] reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction.”
Sugar works well as an ingredient.
In addition to all of the physiological and economic reasons above, sugar is just plain useful. When it comes to food preparation, few ingredients are as versatile as sugar.
To start, sugar is a natural preservative, and using large amounts of it prevents spoilage from bacteria. Next, sugar adds bulk and texture to many foods, helping things stick together and giving baked good their crispiness and golden color. With all these effects, it’s no wonder sugar is the single most popular ingredient added to foods in the USA!