Oh, SNAP! AMA says food stamps should not buy sugary drinks

Last week, the American Medical Association came out against the eligibility for sugary drinks to be purchased under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.  Their new policy recommends that the federal government add sugary drinks to the list of current ineligible products such as tobacco, alcoholic beverages and prepared hot foods due to the known association between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity.  AMA policy does not dictate any actual regulations, but their policies do represent the opinion of the largest group of physicians in the United States.

The controversy surrounding the inclusion of sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda, in SNAP benefits is not new.  In 2008, Congress debated restricting the purchase of sugared drinks with food stamps as part of the 2008 farm bill, ultimately deciding to reject the concept.  Then in 2010, Mayor Michael Bloomberg fought (and subsequently lost) to bar New York City’s 1.7 million recipients of food stamps from using them to purchase soda or other sugared drinks.

Those in opposition of such a restriction have several arguments:

1)      If sugary drinks become ineligible, what’s next? Cookies? Candy? Who determine what is healthful vs. not healthful?

While some food products may have a gray area in terms of health, the link between sugary drinks and poor health outcomes is clear.

2)      Any limitations on SNAP benefits are a direct result of the government trying to tell people what to eat and drink

A government nutrition program should provide foods that are actually nourishing, not empty calories that have been proven to be detrimental to health.  Removing products that are not food (similar to tobacco and alcohol) from eligibility does not stop beneficiaries from continuing to purchase the products, just not with taxpayer dollars.

3)      Removing sugary drinks from eligibility creates a stigma for SNAP beneficiaries

School breakfast and lunch programs, which are also administered by USDA, comply with nutrition standards that exclude sugary drinks, as they should. So does the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which is limited to foods that deliver health benefits to pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children.  The only group that would really be put to shame with this type of regulation is the soft drink industry which reportedly receives $4 billion in taxpayer money each year from food stamps spent on soda.

4)      We should instead focus on incentives to encourage healthier food purchases

A Yale study from 2012 concluded that sugar-sweetened beverages account for the majority (58 percent) of beverages purchased under SNAP.  Making these products ineligible is the perfect incentive for families to spend more dollars on foods and beverages that provide real nourishment.  It also sends a clear message that sugary drinks are not healthful for regular consumption.


We should not just be helping low-income people from going hungry but we should be making real efforts to keep them healthier.   SNAP has already made strides in increasing access to healthier foods through nutrition education programs and the inclusion of farmers markets as an outlet for using benefits.   Removing sugar-sweetened beverages from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is just one more step in encouraging healthier beverage choices.

The government’s ‘cheesy’ advice

Last week, I was given the opportunity to attend a presentation at Yale University by New York Times investigative reporter and best-selling author, Michael Moss.  If you haven’t read his book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, I highly recommend it. Or, if you are short on time, check out Moss’s New York Times article, The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food.  Both take a deep look at the history of the processed food industry, and how their use of salt, sugar, and fat has contributed to the obesity epidemic.


While I consider myself to be relatively knowledgeable about the ties between the government and Big Food, Moss introduced a video during his presentation that had even my jaw hitting the floor. See for yourself:

This video is just one example of our flawed food system.  How can a single agency, like the USDA, be responsible for both the promotion of commodity foods and the delivery of dietary guidance, when these two responsibilities are so conflicting?  You can’t really expect the USDA to tell Americans to reduce their consumption of a basic commodity, like cheese, when it is also their job to make sure we are eating as much as possible. Instead, as Michael Moss notes, they hand out convoluted advice like this, ‘When eaten in moderation and with attention to portion size, cheese can fit into a low-fat, healthy diet’. Adding cheese to virtually every type of processed food the industry can think of, is definitely not a good exercise in moderation.

I started learning about these agency conflicts of interest while I was in grad school, and have since become a huge advocate for moving the responsibility of providing nutrition and dietary advice from the USDA to an unbiased agency such as the Institute of Medicine.  I think the public would be shocked to discover the changes that would be made to MyPlate guidelines, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and even our food assistance programs like SNAP and the National School Lunch Program if an outside agency that wasn’t polluted by corporate interests were to take on the roll. 24sugar1-articleLarge-v3