Sugar Scare: Why Calories May Be the Least of Your Worries About Sweeteners

Added sugar means added risk of this deadly disease.

(Design by Lauren Wade)

Feb 4, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

That sweet tooth won’t just add to your waistline or put you at risk for tooth decay—researchers say that too much of the sweet stuff may kill you.

That’s according to a new study out in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine that found Americans who get 25 percent or more of their calories from added sugar are nearly three times more likely to die of heart disease than those who consumed less than 10 percent—the amount recommended by the World Health Organization.

The study is the first of its kind to link added sugar consumption to death.

Head researcher Quanhe Yang of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at 15 years' worth of data gathered from 31,000 people who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They found that 70 percent of adults exceed WHO’s recommendation that added sugar be limited to under 10 percent of daily calories, making them more likely to die of heart disease.

If you think getting 25 percent of your calories from sugar is a lot, it is—but getting there absentmindedly can be surprisingly easy. A sweet granola bar or two for breakfast; a supersized soda with lunch; a couple of chocolates at the office; and a slice of cake as a late-night snack can do it. Added sugars lurk in unexpected places too, including sweetened fruity yogurts, nonfat salad dressings, and spaghetti sauces.

Whether the added sugar comes from high fructose corn syrup, beet or cane sugar, or something as natural as honey doesn’t matter—the study included all foods that were sweetened.

“What’s tricky is the FDA does not require manufacturers to put added sugar on the label,” says Rachael Johnson, spokesperson for the American Heart Association and University of Vermont professor of nutrition.

To avoid listing sugar as the first ingredient on the ingredient panel, Johnson says food makers often list five or six kinds of sugar separately instead. The FDA has been petitioned to address the problem, she says, but no action has been taken. And of course, naturally occurring sugars in fruit aren't flagged either.

“What the study says is that eating too much sugar isn’t good for you. That’s hardly news,” says Marion Nestle, New York University professor of nutrition. But she says the study reinforces the benefits of limiting added sugars.

“Just about everyone would be healthier eating less sugar, but less is not the same as none. Ten percent of calories for most people means 50 to 80 grams of sugars a day, or 12 to 20 teaspoons. A bit more won’t raise the risk by much. Soft drinks have slightly under a teaspoon of sugar per ounce, so drinking less of them is a good first step,” says Nestle.

Indeed, the study found that 37 percent of added sugar in our diets comes from sugar-sweetened beverages, followed by grain-based desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, and candy.

No surprise, the beverage industry responded swiftly to the new study. After taking credit for an overall decline in adult consumption of added sugars thanks to the industry's increased focus on providing more low- and no-calorie options, the American Beverage Association maintains the study is flawed.

“Heart diseases are a complex set of problems with no single cause and no simple solution. When it comes to risk for heart disease, there is nothing unique about calories from added sugars, or sugar-sweetened beverages for that matter,” says the group in a statement. “This is an observational study which cannot—and does not—show that cardiovascular disease is caused by drinking sugar-sweetened beverages.”

But Yang tells TakePart that the study isn't focused on only sweet drinks—it examines all added sugars, including hidden sugars that Americans consume.

"Most previous studies have focused on sugar-sweetened beverages but not total added sugar, and none of these studies have used national representative samples to examine the relationship between added sugar intake and cardiovascular disease mortality," says Yang.