So the good news about the John Oliver segment on sugar is that it doesn’t really focus on candy. I mean yeah, it starts with a tie-in to Halloween confections, and it ends with a clever bit about Circus Peanuts, but in the middle it’s mostly Clamato juice, Dr. Pepper and ketchup.
Oliver, a Daily Show alum, is the extremely clever and funny host of the HBO show, Last Week Tonight, which airs on Sunday evenings. Each week he targets a specific topic and spends about 10-15 minutes ranting about his point of view.
He has the enviable ability to make everything from military translators and Indian elections to FIFA and student debt interesting and engaging.
So it’s no wonder that the confectionery industry would be concerned that his latest skit focused on sugar and all of its supposed evils.
I mean, how do you even argue with a guy who starts the debate with, “Really? Sugar doesn’t contribute to obesity? I’m not saying it’s the only culprit. But it’s definitely one of the key suspects. Asking, ‘What causes obesity?’ is a bit like asking, ‘Who killed a first grade class’ hamster?’ Sure, they all killed it in a way. But I think we all know, one of them killed it the most.”
Oliver spends the first part of the segment explaining how studies show that sugar is like cocaine, and how it literally messes with our brains, and how it’s in everything from salad dressing to cereal.
And then he gets to the hot topic we all knew he was going to get to — the new nutritional label proposal to add an “added sugars” section under “sugars” to food.
I have to say, as a consumer, instinctively, I’m drawn to this. I mean, what label-reading consumer wouldn’t want to know how much of a certain grape juice is sweetened with sugars from grapes and how much of it is sweetened with sugars from, well, sugar.
But don’t hate me. I promise, I’m not out to take down the confectionery industry with this stance. I’m just trying to tell you what it’s like to be a consumer in such a confusing food marketplace. And I guarantee I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Now, that’s not to say I don’t understand the other side of this debate. I do, and I know that it’s a complex issue. Just yesterday I attended a National Confectioners Association event in Chicago and this exact topic was addressed.
And, Zara Khaleeli, senior manager of food policy and regulations, detailed why the NCA is against the proposal to tack on an “added sugars” section to nutrition labels.
First and foremost, there’s no real way to measure “added sugars” other than looking at a recipe, which is the last thing any manufacturer wants the Food and Drug Administration — or anyone for that matter — to do.
Also, there’s apparently no evidence that the body processes natural sugars any different from “added sugars.”
As a friend of the industry, I want to be on her side. I really do. But I also happen to believe the best way to counter restrictions is with information. It works for campaign finance, tobacco products and sky diving.
So, if the candy industry doesn’t like a world where sugar is regulated like a drug — with age restrictions and dry counties — then they need to start telling that world what they’re using so consumers can at least make educated choices about what they’re eating.
In the end, I think we’ll see what we’ve always seen in the candy aisle — people who buy candy don’t really care about sugar. Confections are an indulgence, and they expect to take a hit in their diet when they eat it.
Consequently, I don’t believe the confectionery industry needs to get so worked up just because John Oliver does a rant about sugar. Everyone knows sugar is a key ingredient in candy. It’s not called a sweet industry for nothing.
Now, the secret-sugar food makers? Those guys probably need to start freaking out. The ones who make marinara and ranch dressing and bread should be having a heart attack right about now — or maybe a diabetic coma would be more apropos. Because once consumers get a better grasp on how much sugar the companies have actually added to those products, they’re probably going to demand some changes.
As for Oliver, he actually thinks we should take the whole “added sugars” thing a step further, suggesting that the current measurement used for listing the sugars — grams — makes no sense to the public.
“No one understands the metric system,” he explains. “Which is why this proposed FDA food label is completely missing the point. Because if they really want us to understand how much sugar is in our food, they need to find a measurement we can immediately grasp. That is why, tonight, we are proposing, in the spirit of Halloween, that product manufacturers express their sugar content in the form of candy. Specifically, Circus Peanuts.”
Each one has about 5 grams of sugar, making it easy to grasp and calculate, Oliver explains.
“So what we’re saying to companies is this, ‘Keep loading up your products with as much sugar as you’d like — under one condition. That on the front of the packaging you display how much sugar it contains in the form of Circus Peanuts.”
He continues, “So for instance, 64 ounces of Clamato juice has 88 grams of sugar, or 16 peanuts worth. A can of Campbell's Tomato soup? Five and half peanuts. A package of 20 Circus Peanuts? Obviously 20 Circus Peanuts.”
Of course, this being John Oliver, he doesn’t stop with basic arithmetic. This is a man of action.
“We as consumers must demand manufacturers adopt this measurement. So please, Tweet out, using the hashtag, #ShowUsYourPeanuts,” he tells the audience. “And ask your favorite food manufacturer, you ask them, to whip out their peanuts.”
Like I said, how do you argue with a funny guy like that?