Sugar might not be so sweet after all. Though the conventional wisdom of “calories in vs. calories out” has long dictated nutritional recommendations for a healthy weight and lifestyle, mounting evidence indicates that this idea could be a drastic oversimplification of the way the foods we eat impact our health. As it turns out, not all calories are created equal. Sugars not found naturally in foods adversely impact metabolism, which causes the liver to generate fat; when consumed in excess proportions, added sugars often lead to insulin resistance. With obesity on the rise — accompanied by burdensome, sometimes life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes — it is important that greater attention be brought to this insidious, white culprit.
The link between sugar intake and the growing public health crisis is causing increasing concern among top health advisory groups. Last month, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which meets once every five years, addressed the prevalence of sugar in the American diet and recognized its role in the increase of chronic and cardiovascular diseases. The panel endorsed an FDA-proposed rule that would require food producers to include a distinct line for added sugars on nutrition labels. Industry giants have actively lobbied against such a requirement, fearing that it will adversely impact sales.
The American Heart Association recently recommended a reduction in sugar consumption from an average of 22 daily tablespoons among most Americans to no more than nine tablespoons for men and six for women. The World Health Organization has echoed these guidelines, urging people to cut added sugars down to only five percent of their daily caloric intake. The WHO had previously advised a 10 percent limit.
There’s no nutritional benefit that accompanies the addition of sugar to foods, yet its presence in the American diet has steadily increased since the 1980s, when concerns over fat content in processed foods led to the replacement of fat with sugar. Products touting “low-fat” and “fat-free” credentials saturated the markets. The problem? These products brimmed with added sugars. Sodas and fruit juices, which provide half of the daily sugar intake of the average adult in the U.S., have become commonplace. Even foods that do not taste overtly sweet — salad dressings and sauces — often contain shocking amounts of added sugars.
But a body of scientific literature proposes that even better labeling might not be effective at curbing American sugar consumption. These studies suggest that sugar is an addictive substance, stimulating the same neurological pathways as an opioid drug and thus forming compulsive habits in consumers. Researchers liken sugar-induced cravings to those brought on by other addictive substances like nicotine and cocaine. Our evolutionary history predisposes us to such an addiction, a genetic remnant of a time when sugars were rare and hunter-gatherer societies sought out energy-dense sweets in the wild. Today, sugar is highly concentrated in many of the foods we eat, but our brains still compel us to seek it out. Because it is no longer scarce, it is easy to satisfy these cravings instantly and repeatedly.
Public health advocates have called for necessary changes to the food culture to minimize the presence of sugar. Soda taxes and the elimination of sugar-sweetened beverages from hospitals and school cafeterias are two such proposals. Still, others worry that such a narrow focus on the elimination of added sugars could have unexpected consequences. As in the 1980s, when concerns over fat content led to its replacement with sugar, food companies may be inclined to replace sugar with another additive of equal threat to consumer health.
Rather, the consumption of wholesome, natural foods must become a priority. Natural sugars, like those in fruit and milk, should replace those that are artificially introduced, and a departure from the culture of processed and fast foods is essential. Only through these steps can society avert the public health catastrophe that has come to affect more than half of all Americans.
Austin Reagan is a junior majoring in environmental studies and political science. His column, “The Scientific Method,” runs Mondays.