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New tool to avoid added sugar

Couple baking with sugar
December 4, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Here’s sweet news for those of us who blame added sugar for a host of serious health problems.

For the first time, the FDA has seen the light and agrees. They now propose, finally, that consumption of added sugar, the so-called “empty calories” found in thousands of Big Food products, be limited to no more than 10 percent of daily calories. (Natural sugars that occur in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are fine, and necessary for good health.)

Ten percent of daily calories = about a can of Coke = 12.5 teaspoons = about 1.5 ounces.

Sugars now account for about 13.5 percent of the average Americans’ caloric intake. The number grows to 16 percent for children and teens, drops down to 14 percent for people 20–39, and declines further with age. Again, these are averages—African Americans and low-income people consume above average amounts.

It matters because it kills

Public health experts have been warning us about added sugars for years. They now have a powerful new reason—recent evidence links a high-sugar diet with chronic disease by causing inflammation, insulin resistance, and high blood pressure.

Another recent study links heavy sugar in the diet with deaths from cardiovascular disease.   Compared with those consuming less than 10 percent of daily calories, people with the highest sugar intake—25 percent of daily calories—were nearly three times more likely to die of heart disease over a 14-year period.

And, of course, there are the concurrent epidemics of kidney disease, diabetes, and obesity, which track dreadfully close to increases in consumption of added sugars. Indeed, since the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup in the US in the 1970s, the combination of refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup has resulted in an additional 30% increase in overall sweetener intake.

The labels hide the truth

Eliminating a can or two of sugary soft drinks, sports drinks, or fruit juices from your diet is always a good idea, but nowhere near a solution. That’s because added sugars, notably refined sugar, processed honey, and high-fructose corn syrup—are all but ubiquitous on our supermarket shelves, even in “health foods” that aren’t healthy at all.

And for now, those sugars are all but invisible. That’s because today’s ingredients labels list only the total amount of sugar in a product. There’s no distinguishing between natural sugars and nasty ones.

The FDA wants to change the labels to help consumers distinguish between the amount of naturally occurring sugar and the amount of added sugar.

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Big Food is pushing back, of course, claiming that the new labels will only confuse consumers. They cite a study that found that people overestimated the amount of sugar in products that listed “added sugars,” and were less likely to buy them.

So what’s wrong with that? Watch what happens when added sugars are subtracted.

It works

In another study, researchers removed foods with added sugar from a group of children’s diets and replaced them with other types of carbohydrates. All of the subjects were black or Hispanic and obese, and all had one or more symptoms of metabolic syndrome—a cruel cluster of risk factors including hypertension, high blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol and excess body fat around the waist.

After only 10 days, the children showed “dramatic” improvements:

  • Their LDL cholesterol, the kind implicated in heart disease, fell by 10 points.
  • Their diastolic blood pressure fell 5 points.
  • Their triglycerides, a type of fat that travels in the blood and contributes to heart disease, dropped 33 points.
  • Their fasting blood sugar and insulin levels—indicators of their diabetes risk—also improved dramatically.

It just goes to show you, folks. And welcome to the real world, FDA.

Can we move on and get some health happening now?

Our job together

The status of the FDA’s proposed changes is hard to determine. They were updated last summer and appear to still be in proposal form. I’ll let you know when I track down the truth.

Meanwhile, my job is to keep you attuned to matters of your health, including (as always) your diet.

Your job is to avoid added sugars by buying fresh from your local organic producer straight to your table, which is always my recommendation.

If you must buy from Big Food, always read the label with an eye toward catching the important ingredients and numbers.

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