Grade 9 blogger takes on Big Sugar at a school presentation

sugar rush
CC BY 2.0 Logan Brumm

A young student challenges the message that "sugar can be part of a healthy diet" and is told to stop asking questions.

When 13-year-old Ryan Storm went to school last week in Toronto, he was shocked to encounter a lunch hour presentation promoting the benefits of sugar. It was part of his school’s “Healthy Hub” program, designed to teach kids about nutrition, cooking, and ingredients, but Ryan was highly skeptical of this presentation’s message that “sugar can be part of a healthy diet.”

The presentation was hosted by the Canadian Sugar Institute (CSI), although, according to Ryan, this was unclear due to lack of signs. The pro-sugar activities “included a jeopardy game focused on types of sugars, where sugar comes from, and myths and facts regarding sugars; pictures of foods representing each of the functions that sugars can perform in foods (e.g. food safety/preservation, texture, browning); and a nutrition labeling exercise.”

Ryan started to ask probing questions. As a passionate young blogger who has written about healthy eating since he was 9, Ryan was well enough informed to know that sugar is hardly something we North Americans should be eating more of. He mentioned studies that have compared sugar’s addictive tendencies to cocaine.

“So considering how many people think sugar is such a bad thing, how can you guys go around saying sugar is healthy?”

The CSI representatives quickly became defensive and uncomfortable with his inquiries, refusing his request to film or record them, saying it would be an invasion of privacy. Eventually they told him to stop asking questions. You can listen to his account of the conversation over the dinner table with his family right here:

CSI: Sugar from Ryan Storm on Vimeo.

The school board has since apologized for inviting the CSI to the school. Principal Ron Felsen told the Toronto Star, “It’s a great initiative, but all speakers should be vetted. I’m glad we have students that will question things.”

It appears there was very little vetting that occurred, despite the obvious fact that the organization’s name is the Canadian Sugar Institute. The school had even sent out an email to parents ahead of time, stating that they would have guest presenters from the CSI and that the school would sell banana bread in an effort to promote "healthy, sugary treats."

The Institute’s website makes some statements that would cause any dedicated healthy eater to raise their eyebrows in skepticism.

For example, it asserts that sugar does not make kids hyperactive. As an experienced parent, I most heartily disagree. Instead:

“Researchers have suggested that occasional bouts of excess energy among healthy children may be linked to the excitement associated with special activities like parties, holiday celebrations and recess, not the sweets or other foods served at these events.”

The website also states that the sweet taste of sugar does not encourage people to over-eat: “Although our appetite for sweet taste is with us from birth, sugar and other carbohydrate sweeteners do not encourage people to overindulge,” and that “people who eat more sugars are less likely to be overweight or obese than those who eat less sugars.” It appears little has changed since this ad was used in the 1960s:

Sugar Information, Inc./Public Domain

Since the CSI reps at Ryan’s school wouldn’t even tell him who funded the studies that support these grandiose statements, it’s more important than ever for websites such as SugarScience.org (which I wrote about yesterday on TreeHugger) to step forward and sift through the 8,000+ studies on sugar to find what’s truly unbiased (i.e. not funded by Big Sugar) and scientifically sound.

We need more young activists like Ryan to speak out when the message doesn’t feel quite right and to spread the commonsense message that sugar is not meant to be embraced, just because it already exists naturally in some of our foods.

Tags: Activism | Diet | Health

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