Big Sugar and the FDA: a Glimpse of Self-organization at the Edge of Disorganization

Ok, let’s try another exercise in putting a complexity theory of power through its paces. (Or, to put it in terms of the broader purpose of this blog, let’s view one more power conflict through a complexity lens to see if it can cast light on how to bridge the two cultures divide between the physical and social sciences.)

Some fodder for this purpose can be found in a May 22, 2016 New York Times article by Sabrina Tavernese entitled “F.D.A. Finishes Food Labels for How We Eat Now”. It reports on new rules issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that food producers must follow when labeling their products with nutritional information. When the FDA announced the proposals in 2014, “… consumer advocates worried that many of the major elements would not survive lobbying by the powerful food industry.” The stiffest opposition came from the D.C.-based Sugar Association over a new line requiring disclosure of the amount of added sugars contained in a product, information that helps consumers identify how much sugar above and beyond the naturally occurring sugars has been added to a product. Public health advocates pressed for the new line as one way to help combat an obesity epidemic affecting more than one-third of adults in the United States that has, in turn, “caused rates of diabetes to soar and has increased risks for cancer, heart disease and stroke”. NYU public health professor Marion Nestle, calling the FDA ruling “a huge win”, echoed the feelings of many health advocates. The Sugar Association, on the other contrary, stated “We are concerned that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science, and could actually deter us from our shared goal of a healthier America”. Food producers must include the new labels on their products by July 2018 (New York Times, May 22, 2016: A3).

As the sugar industry’s key lobby group in Washington, the Sugar Association represents what many health advocates refer to as “Big Sugar”, intentionally alluding to “Big Tobacco”. Like the tobacco industry, Big Sugar has a long history of obfuscating the growing body of scientific evidence linking products high in sugar with a host of illnesses. For an excellent job documenting this history, check out “Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies”, a Mother Jones investigative piece by Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens (http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/sugar-industry-lies-campaign).

The tug of war over the added sugars line is just one of the components of the conflict over the new nutritional labels but it shall be the exclusive focus here because it maps particularly well to the complexity/power model I wish to demo. In terms of that model, the key actors in the conflict – Big Sugar, public health advocates (including, in this instance, the FDA) and the sugar consuming public — constitute a complex political system, or a system whose analysis can call upon assorted concepts in the complexity theory toolset like self-organization and disorganization or entropy, openness and closure etc. Because these concepts originate in pre-biotic physical science, their application to something as mundane as K Street politics is a good way to test their relevance to human affairs and ultimately to the challenge of bridging the two cultures divide between the physical and social sciences.

Applied to this conflict, the general picture that emerges is a struggle between opening, self-organizing forces and closing, disorganizing forces. Health advocates are trying to pry open a relatively closed system and to make available potentially empowering information, information that, by helping consumers make healthier choices, advances consumer autonomy and self-organizing capacities. Big Sugar, on the other hand, by trying to keep the public in the dark, favors a consuming public that is disempowered and disorganized in terms of its ability both to understand potential consequences of its purchasing decisions and to make informed decisions.

One of the essential dynamics of a closed system is its entropic movement toward the probable or the predictable, toward equilibrium.   For marketing purposes (i.e., for the purpose of exerting power over consumer purchases), Big Sugar needs a sufficiently passive and predictable consuming public, a public that is amenable and receptive to mass media advertising campaigns for sugar products. The last thing sugar marketers wish to have to deal with when mounting such campaigns is a consuming public questioning whether a certain amount of sugar consumption is healthy or not and making purchasing decisions on those grounds.

The goal of health advocates in pushing for the added sugars line, however, is precisely to stir things up, to get the public to start asking questions about its sugar-related purchases. They seek to break consumer population’s mold of passivity, to move consumers away from an equilibrium-oriented passivity toward a creative nonequilibrium, to advance active, questioning, autonomous consumer behavior.

A closed system, a system intolerant of questioning, typically possesses an ideology that guides its intolerance. The Sugar Association’s “mission of educating health professionals, media, government officials and the public about sugar’s goodness” (https://www.sugar.org/about-us/) offers the seeds of such an ideology. Closure to uncertainty about the “sugar’s goodness” breeds an absolutely certain, not-to-be-questioned doctrine of Sugar Goodness. Such a doctrine would certainly help explain how public disclosure of added sugars becomes “a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science”. In the complexity approach adopted here, any system closed to questioning or the recognition of uncertainty fails to incorporate one of the great reality breakthroughs of 20th century science – namely, uncertainty can never be eliminated; it can only be reduced. To believe blindly in Sugar Goodness is to be on a collision course with reality, specifically with realities exposed by medical science linking sugar consumption to a host of illnesses.

To look at the interactions of actors in this ‘added sugars’ conflict is to look at a tiny slice of a complex dynamic political system. My claims that the sugar lobby is, vis a vis the sugar consuming public, a disorganizing, passivity-inducing force and public health advocates are a self-organizing, activity-inducing force only apply to this narrow snapshot, the tug of war over inclusion or inclusion of this particular bit of information on food labels. I suspect, however, from bits and pieces I have glimpsed while looking into this topic, that the conflict depicted here is part of a larger pattern in which Big Sugar is indeed a disorganizing force and that health advocates whose work in the trenches has given them a good deal of expertise on this matter would be fully capable of making the broader case. I’ll gladly engage in dialogue with anyone who would like to look further into or undertake this type of analysis.

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