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The not-so-sweet story of 'Big Sugar'

The average American consumes more than a hundred pounds of sugar in a year, according to the U.S.D.A. The long-term impacts of eating too much of the sweet white stuff are well documented, from contributing to risks for diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease.

But sugar remains a vaulted commodity in American agriculture, receiving billions of dollars in subsidies from the federal government. And for decades, tens of thousands of immigrant workers have endured extremely harsh working conditions in central Florida’s sugar cane fields so that we can feel the rush.

America’s relationship with sugar and the influence sugar companies have on our politics, healthcare, and environment are the subjects of the new 9-episode podcast series “Big Sugar” from iHeartMedia, Imagine Audio and Weekday Fun Productions

We speak with host Celeste Headlee and Executive Producer Marie Brenner. Her investigation for Vanity Fair more than two decades ago is the underlying material for the podcast.

We reached out to the Sugar Association and the American Sugar Alliance for a written statement. The Alliance provided the following written statement below.


From the American Sugar Alliance which represents sugarbeet and sugarcane farmers and workers across the United States:

The ‘Big Sugar’ podcast depicts an antiquated and inaccurate picture of the U.S. sugar industry from the 1980s. Today, sugar planting and harvesting is high-tech and nearly 100% mechanized. This industry is 100% farmer-, employee-, and family- owned. Sugarbeet processors and cane refineries employ 100% union skilled labor. All of the sugar industry pays fair wages and offers good benefits to their workers.

The podcast maligns the 11,000 sugarbeet and sugarcane family farmers who support 151,000 jobs across more than two dozen states. We provide high quality sugar to American consumers everyday — even throughout the Pandemic. This anti-farmer ‘Big Sugar’ narrative is not true to who we are as farmers and workers today.

Copyright 2023 WAMU 88.5

Chris Remington