Courtney Gaine believes in her product so much she eats M&Ms for breakfast.
Gaine is the president and CEO of the Sugar Association, a trade association based in Washington, D.C. Peculiar diet aside, she nonetheless looks fit enough to step back on the basketball court for the University of Connecticut, where she played four seasons for legendary coach Geno Auriemma, her last year in 1999 as co-captain for the national powerhouse team.
"If you don't allow it, you crave it," she said of her daily taste for candy. Sugar, she says, is simply part of a balanced diet found in healthy foods like cereals and granola bars. That's the message she pitches on the industry's behalf.
Nowadays, Gaine is using the other benefit of her years at UConn, an earned doctorate in nutritional sciences and biochemistry, in leading the Sugar Association. She laid out a public landscape for sugar at the Louisiana-based American Sugar Cane League's annual meeting in Lafayette that is dim, if not dark. But there was a spoonful of hope, too.
"It's a trying time," she said. "Sugar is not very popular in the media right now."
In fact, she said, lots of folks are gunning against sugar: public officials, the Food and Drug Administration and even former first lady Michelle Obama, among them.
"It's hard for consumers to not think sugar is bad," she said.
Negative messages about added sugars are enough to befuddle consumers and worry parents, but Gaine said consumers ought to keep these facts in mind:
Without sugar, people would be less likely to eat fiber, she said. "Fiber is absolutely disgusting without sugar. We know that," she said.
There's data-driven evidence that sugar is not what's causing widespread obesity in America. The use of caloric sweeteners has declined since 1999, she said, while obesity has increased. Added sugars may be part of the problem in gaining weight, but it is not "the driver."
Some 70 percent of consumers still use sugar. The industry should help consumers to understand it and to use it in moderation.
Gaine suggested the war on sugar is a scattershot one, emboldened by a lack of hard scientific fact. She said the sugar industry should continue to fund its own research but warned that skeptics will never embrace the results of industry-funded studies. She suggested the sugar industry should take its case to consumers, emphasizing that sugar is a farm-grown product.
"People want to see where food is made," she said. "We have to start talking about ourselves."
As a beacon of hope, she pointed to the honey industry. She said honey retains "the halo of health" while sugar does not, but both are natural products. Sales of honey soared over the last five years, she said, while sugar sales declined. The sugar industry should learn from that, she said.
After her presentation, she said she too was skeptical of a widely distributed medical journal report last fall that said Harvard researchers, paid by the industry in the 1960s, may have fudged their research results then to suggest that fat, not sugar, was the culprit behind heart disease. She said quality researchers would not have tainted their own results, and that because the scientists are now deceased, they cannot defend themselves.
Nonetheless, she said, activists and critics won't easily relent in targeting sugar. She said the industry must be responsible in its messages, must rely on research and must be pro-active with the government and consumers to promote and safeguard sugar's image.