A Spoonful of Bad Health? UCSF Researchers Slam Sugar

By Katherine Hobson


Tobacco, alcohol … and sugar?

A new commentary published in Nature argues that just as the first two substances are regulated in various ways by government authorities, so should be sugar. While acknowledging that food, unlike alcohol and tobacco, is required for survival, the authors say taxes, zoning ordinances and even age limits for purchasing certain sugar-laden products are all appropriate remedies for what they see as a not-so-sweet problem.

The authors of the piece, Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis, are all from the University of California, San Francisco. Lustig has been a particularly harsh (and longtime) critic of the impact of added sugars on health — here’s his widely viewed 2009 lecture on that topic. (Lustig was also a central character in a New York Times magazine piece on this subject last year.)

Note that they are talking about sugar added to foods. No one is arguing that we should spurn fruit, for example, because of the naturally occurring fructose.

“We believe attention should be turned to ‘added sugar,’ defined as any sweetener containing the molecule fructose that is added to food in processing,” the authors write. (And they argue the current dietary “bogeymen” — saturated fat and salt — deserve less scrutiny than the sweet white stuff.)

They’re talking about foods sweetened with sucrose — about half fructose and half glucose — and high-fructose corn syrup, which despite its name is mostly used in formulations that are 55% and 42% fructose.

The authors write that sugar is more than just empty calories — that growing evidence links fructose overconsumption with health problems including hypertension and diabetes. “Early studies” link it to cancer and cognitive decline, they write. They also argue that like tobacco and alcohol, “it acts on the brain to encourage subsequent intake.”

So, what’s a country to do? The authors propose taxing processed foods containing any kind of added sugars, including drinks and cereal. In addition, they suggest tightening licensing requirements on vending machines and snack bars selling sugary drinks in schools and at work, instituting zoning ordinances to restrict the number of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores in low-income neighborhoods and near schools, and even instituting an age limit for purchasing sugary drinks such as soda.

And they want the FDA to consider removing fructose from the list of ingredients deemed Generally Recognized as Safe. (Douglas Karas, an FDA spokesman, says that step is not currently being considered.)

The Sugar Association, not surprisingly, found a lot to dislike in the commentary. In a response published on its website, the industry group says that USDA stats show people are consuming about 425 more calories per day now than 40 years ago, with caloric sweeteners accounting for about 38 of those calories. Meantime, the group contends that consumption of cane and beet sugar has been falling even as obesity rates have been rising.

“We consider it irresponsible when health professionals use their platforms to instill fear by using words like ‘diabetes,’ ‘cancer,’ and even ‘death,’ without so much as one disclaimer about the fact that the incomplete science being referenced is inconclusive at best,” the association says.

The obesity problem “originates from the combination of overconsumption of all foods and lack of exercise. To label a single food as the one and only problem misinforms, misleads and confuses consumers, and simply adds to the problem,” the association says.

The National Confectioners Association, meantime, said that the group “supports realistic advice to Americans that accommodate all foods including occasional treats in moderation. There is a place for little pleasures, such as candy, in an overall lifestyle that supports health, wellness and happiness. In fact, helping the public understand how to incorporate little pleasures in their diet may well play the most important role in achieving and sustaining recommended dietary behaviors.”

If you do want to keep an eye on your sugar intake, the nutrition facts panel that appears on food packages now does not break out added and naturally-occurring sugars. But you can certainly see how many total grams of sugar you’re consuming.

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