How do you feel about sugar? Do you consciously try to avoid it in your diet? As someone who formulates with food ingredients, you know sugar can function in a formula to improve texture and mouth-feel as well as to boost flavor. But is sugar safe to consume? Sugar has been blamed for a variety of diseases such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, dementia, depression, hyperactivity in children and tooth decay. Yet a new study published by JAMA takes a look at the already maligned ingredient, suggesting an industry-wide cover-up regarding the safety of consuming sugar.
The JAMA article claims the sugar industry suppressed negative health claims in order to sell more product. As early as the 1960’s, studies began to link a diet high in sugar to coronary heart disease (CHD). The documents included in the examination of the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) turned up industry-funded studies that were favorable to the consumption and sales of sugar. The SRF-backed research pushed saturated fats, rather than sugar, as the cause of CHD. In the JAMA article, Kearns paints a picture of science funded by an industry that desired to favorably influence policy makers.
The cover up
The SRF studies were conducted from the 1960s through the late 1970s. In response to the anti-sugar industry article, the Sugar Association issued a statement saying that it “…is always seeking to further understand the role of sugar and health, but
As the sugar industry was downplaying any negative health effects of sugar, packaged foods were becoming increasingly popular. Packaged foods contain more added sugar than do their whole food counterparts. Sugar is an inexpensive ingredient used to add flavor and texture to such foods. As convenience foods rose in popularity, our consumption of sugar in processed foods increased as well, together with a decrease in our health. In fact, the World Health Organization recommends “adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake. A further reduction to below 5% or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits” (WHO, 2015).
How unhealthy is sugar?
The current scientific research on the consumption of sugar and heart disease is not clear. Since sugar is not eaten in isolation, but as an ingredient in a formula, pointing to sugar as a causal agent in epidemiologic studies can be difficult. The nutritional panel from a top-selling frozen meal shows not only high levels of sugar, but high sodium and fat as well: saturated fat 10.0g, 50% of daily allowance; cholesterol 210mg, 70% of daily allowance; sodium 2869mg, 120% of daily allowance; and total carbohydrates 90.9g, 30% of daily allowance.
According to information provided by the America Heart Association, consumption of sugar itself does not directly produce health hazards; rather, the diseases associated with sugar consumption, such as obesity and diabetes, put us at higher risk of CHD. Naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables have not been found to increase the risk of CHD. It is the added or refined sugars found in processed foods and beverages that carry the potential to increase this risk (Elsevier, 2013).
The food industry in the 1950s and today are significantly different. Scientific research, FDA guidelines established in 1994, transparency in funding, and peer reviews, as well as growing consumer awareness and health advocacy are changing the industry. Food labels and nutritional guidelines are changing to meet the transparency consumers expect in their food products.
Though the link between sugar and CHD is still unclear, a diet that comprises processed food, fast food, and soda will lead to obesity, and obesity is a cause of CHD. In the food industry, it all comes down to the consumer: if consumers stop buying foods high in sugar, salt and fat, new and healthier products will be created. Kearns’s article should be a wake up call for the food industry.
- ScienceDaily. “Sugar Consumption Plays Greater Role in Heart Disease than Saturated Fat.” Ed. Elsevier. ScienceDaily, 13 Jan. 2016. Accessed on 18 Oct 2016 at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/01/160113103318.htm.
- Corliss, J. “Eating Too Much Added Sugar Increases the Risk of Dying with Heart Disease – Harvard Health Blog.” Harvard Health Blog RSS. Harvard Health Blog, 01 Dec. 2015. Accessed on 18 Oct 2016 at http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/eating-too-much-added-sugar-increases-the-risk-of-dying-with-heart-disease-201402067021.
- Howard, B.V., Wylie-Rosett, J. “Sugar and Cardiovascular Disease.” Circulation. American Heart Association, 23 July 2002. Accessed on 18 Oct 2016 at http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/106/4/523.
- “Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research.” JAMA Internal Medicine – Improving Health and Health Care. JAMA Internal Medicine, 12 Sept. 2016. Accessed on 18 Oct. 2016 at http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2548255&alert=1.
- Lindmeier, C., and Lawe Davies, O. “WHO Guideline : Sugar Consumption Recommendation.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, 4 Mar. 2015. Web.