A new study linking sugar and increased risk of dying from heart problems may have you thinking twice about digging in to that Valentine’s Day candy box.
It may seem like a logical connection—after all, individuals with high sugar intakes are far more likely to be overweight or obese, a significant contributor to heart disease. But researchers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that people who eat too much added sugar (the kind not found naturally in fruit) are more prone to heart problems, regardless of their weight.
And it turns out that sugar eaters should fear more than just ticker troubles.
In an editorial published with the study, University of California at San Francisco professor of health policy Laura Schmidt discusses how the ill effects of added sugar expand far beyond cardiovascular issues, including ailments such as diabetes, dementia and cirrhosis. “The new paradigm hypothesizes that sugar has adverse health effects above any purported role as ‘empty calories’ promoting obesity,” she says. “Too much sugar does not just make us fat; it can also make us sick.”
The “added sugar” enemy
Human beings don’t need to eat foods with added sugar in them, we can easily consume all the carbohydrates we need from natural sources such as fruit (fructose) and dairy products (lactose).
Yet, figures from the American Heart Association (AHA) suggest that the average American eats around 355 calories of added sugar per day—more than three times the recommended intake for women (100 calories) and well over twice the recommended intake for men (150 calories). For every teaspoon of sugar—about 4.2 grams—has around 16 calories.
An AHA report published in the journal Circulation points the finger at soda and other high-sugar beverages as the main culprit in the nearly 20 percent rise in average added sugar intake between 1970 and 2005.
Decoding food labels to uncover dietary dangers
Added sugars are found in an ever-increasing number of foods and are often used in conjunction with excess amounts of salt as a way to preserve flavor in low-or no-fat food items.
Schmidt points out that there is currently no official restriction on how much additional sweeteners food manufacturers can use, since sugar remains on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) list of products that are “generally regarded as safe.”
Uncovering sources of extra sugar on food labels can be tricky, primarily due to the sheer number of different ways these ingredients can be described:
Evaporated cane juice
High-fructose corn syrup
Fruit juice concentrates
Sugar ending on “ose”—glucose, lactose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose
While some of the items on this list—honey, molasses, agave nectar—are indeed natural sources of sugar (which are considered to be healthier than pure sugar or artificial sweeteners) when included as ingredients in the processing of other foods, they are still considered “added sugars.”
Taking legal action against sugar
Highly controversial “soda tax” legislation, which places an additional charge on soft drinks and other sugary beverages, has grown in popularity in recent years, with regulations being introduced or passed in multiple areas including Colorado, Washington State, New York State, Maryland and Virginia. A separate UCSF study indicates that such taxes can potentially decrease consumption of sugary drinks by 10 percent.
Schmidt laments the struggles involved in getting the government to more strictly regulate sugar in foods, but says this recent investigation into the adverse heart health effects of added sugar, “holds the potential to turn the political tide by demonstrating that added sugar is not as benign as once presumed.”
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