New research shows that sugar is not as innocuous as it once seemed.
And most American adults consume more than is recommended, with sugary drinks being our primary vice.
A study released in January found that higher rates of sugar consumption may increase the risk of death due to heart disease, the leading cause of death among both men and women in the United States.
Those who consume 17 to 21 percent of their calories from added sugar have a 38 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease than those whose consumption is under 10 percent, according to the study from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
By these numbers, it would only take adding one soda a day to otherwise recommended levels for the risk to climb dramatically.
The study focused on added sugar, not what is naturally occurring in food such as fruit, dairy or grains.
Meanwhile, a California senator has launched efforts to curb sugary drink consumption with recent bill proposals.
Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) pushed for a bill for the past several years that would have added a penny per ounce sales tax to sugary drinks. That bill died in committee in January.
In February, Monning took a different tack by proposing legislation requiring warning labels on sugary drinks, like those on cigarette packages.
Any drink with 75 or more calories from added sugar per 12 ounces would have a label that reads: “The State of California Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.”
“When the science is this conclusive, the state of California has a responsibility to take steps to protect consumers,” Monning said in a written statement.
Beverage producers have opposed the bill, saying it unfairly targets one of many sources of sugar.
The average American adult eats 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, or 165 pounds a year, the CDC study says.
That amount would be startling if it were set in teaspoons on a counter, but instead it is laced quietly through packaged foods, said the study’s lead author Quang Yang, a senior scientist and epidemiologist.
“Some of them may be shocked to see how much we are consuming every day,” he said.
The study’s surprising find is that sugar’s tie to heart disease is independent of obesity, said Laura Schmidt, professor of health policy at the University of California at San Francisco’s School of Medicine. It has long been known to contribute to obesity, which in turn can cause cardiovascular disease.
But the study indicates sugar’s influence is more direct, she said.
“The paradigm shift we’re now seeing is, wait a minute, that’s all true, but there is something additional that could be impacting health,” she said.
About 600,000 people die from heart disease each year — amounting to one in four deaths, the CDC reports.
Yang said it’s unclear what sugar does in the body to increase the risk, but he surmises that it is likely through multiple pathways.
Sugar increases hypertension and decreases insulin sensitivity, he said. It is associated with added fat accumulation in the liver, which promotes an increase in triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood.
Sugar also increases inflammation markers, he said.
The CDC’s study is one in a slew recently that indicate there is more risk to sugar than cavities and obesity:
- When people eat added sugars, they tend to eat fewer healthy macronutrients, according to a National Center for Health Statistics brief published in May.
- Sugar may feed the growth of cancers, says a study released in September by University of Copenhagen.
- Those with high blood sugars are more likely to have memory problems, according to an American Academy of Neurology study published in October.
- Scientists at the University of Bordeaux found in 2007 that rats choose sugar water over cocaine, indicating its addictive nature. This result was echoed using Oreos in through a student /professor joint study at Connecticut College in October.
Recommendations of daily added sugar intake swing from 9 percent to 25 percent of total daily calories, depending on the organization.
Based on Yang’s findings, the best recommendations come from the American Health Association, he said.
It determined that 25 grams (6 teaspoons) for woman and 38 grams (9 teaspoons) for men were the healthiest limits.
One can of soda contains about 33 to 39 grams of sugar.
Sugar sweetened drinks make up more than 37 percent of the average adult’s sugar intake, the CDC’s heart study found. Other common sources included grain-based deserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts and candy.
High sugar content is tucked in instant oatmeal, granola bars, spaghetti sauces and other foods.
It can be high in foods with packaging boasting healthy traits, such as “low fat” or “whole grain.”
Kellogg’s Smart Start Strong Heart breakfast cereal has 17 grams of sugar. Sobe green tea has 50 grams, and Yoplait 99 percent fat free lemon burst yogurt contains 31 grams.
Yang said consumers should compare labels and select products with the lowest amounts of sugar. Cutting down sugary beverages would be a quick way to reduce sugar intake, he said.
The American Heart Association recommends that consumers check both the grams of sugar and the ingredients list on a package, avoiding foods with sugar in the first two spots. Look for sugar’s aliases, such as dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, maltose and others. Replace added sugars with natural sources from fruits or vegetables. Look for canned foods that aren’t marinated in sugary syrups.
Spices such as cinnamon, lemon juice, nutmeg and vanilla help sweeten dishes naturally, association officials said.
Schmidt believes the solution to American’s sweet tooth is broader than urging people to cut back.
“It’s not enough to just tell people just eat less sugar when 77 percent of the food available has added sugar,” she said.
Changes should occur in policy and the environment, including packaging labels that are more meaningful, she said.
Unlike sodium or fat, labels don’t list percentages of daily recommended intake, Schmidt said. They also don’t distinguish between added sugar and what is naturally occurring.
She supports policies that limit sales of sugary drinks to children, particularly in schools, and increased funding for programs that promote healthy diets among vulnerable populations, she said.
“We really need to step in and take some active steps to help reduce the saturation of added sugar in our food supply,” she said.