One way to get control of out-of-control healthcare costs and reducing death from major diseases may be as simple as putting a lid on our nation’s sugar consumption. But how? Imposing a sugar tax, sugar content labeling, and banning sugary drinks in school have had little impact. However, a micro-simulation study published in Circulation has found that reducing the amount of sugar in commercially prepared foods and sugary beverages will have a larger impact than previous attempts.
What this study found was that cutting 20% of sugar from packaged foods and 40% from beverages, could prevent 2.48 million cardiovascular disease events (such as strokes, heart attacks, cardiac arrests), 490,000 cardiovascular deaths, and 750,000 diabetes cases in the U.S. over the lifetime of the adult population.
The goal from this study is to attempt to implement and push a reformulation initiative along with government support, helping food companies to work on sugar-reduction targets for packaged foods and beverages. If this takes effect, it’s predicted that the U.S. could expect to save $4.28 billion in total net healthcare costs, and $118.04 billion over the lifetime of the current adult population (ages 35 to 79), according to the model. The study also demonstrated that even partial industry compliance with the policy could generate significant health and economic gains.
The bittersweet truth about excess sugar in our food supply
Sugar’s reputation when it comes to health is bittersweet. On the one hand, sugar occurs naturally in all foods that contain carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. These natural sugar sources are good for us – they are absorbed slowly and provide a steady supply of energy to the cells along with their natural package of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants.
The problem, however, is not the natural sources of sugar – it’s the excess sugar added to processed foods that lack important nutrients and fiber making the American public sick. The top sources are soft drinks, fruit drinks, flavored yogurts, cereals, cookies, candy, cakes, and even foods such as ketchup, cured meats, and bread. Added up over the course of a 24-hour day and too much sugar will have been consumed.
There is a strong link between consuming sugary foods and beverages and obesity and diseases such as type 2 diabetes and the leading cause of death in the U.S., which is cardiovascular disease. We live in a nation where more than two in five American adults are obese, one in two has diabetes or prediabetes, and nearly one in two has cardiovascular disease. Unfortunately, the people affected the most and who carry the highest burden of this result are those in lower-income groups.
Consuming too much added sugar can also raise blood pressure and increase chronic inflammation, both of which are pathological pathways to heart disease. The effects of added sugar – higher blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease – are all linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
How much sugar is okay?
Currently, the average adult man consumes an average of 24 teaspoons of added sugar per day which is equivalent to approximately 384 extra calories a day, depending on the foods consumed, according to the National Cancer Institute.
To put things into perspective, the recommendation from the American Heart Association on what amount of sugar is okay to consume daily is as follows:
- Men – no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories) of added sugar per day
- Women – no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories) per day of added sugar
Keep in mind that one 12-ounce can of soda contains about 8 teaspoons (32 grams) of added sugar. Also keep in mind that this recommendation does include the amount of sugar found naturally within foods – this only includes ‘added’ sugars such as sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, coconut sugar, etc.
If this initiative does go into effect, this would not be the first time the U.S. has done product reformulation efforts that have proven to be successful. One example is the reduction of sodium within packaged foods by offering lower-sodium versions such as what is found in canned soups.
Another example is steps taken by the FDA to remove artificial trans fats in processed foods. Trans fats can raise LDL cholesterol levels while lowering HDL cholesterol levels increasing the risk for heart disease and stroke. They’ve also been associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Trans fats are found naturally in foods such as milk, butter, cheese, and meat. But most trans fats in our food supply (e.g., stick margarine, donuts, frozen pizza, cake mixes, frosting) are artificially made from a manufacturing process called hydrogenation that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil, converting the liquid into a solid fat at room temperature.
In 2015, the FDA determined that the major source of artificial trans fats in our food are no longer “Generally Recognized as Safe,” and have been removing the majority of artificial trans fats found in processed foods with a deadline set of mid-2018 for most trans fats to be removed by.
For now, it makes sense to set lower limits on sugar levels in the food supply. Adding sugar to processed foods has been very common and the sooner we slash this amount, this is one more way we can help the American public live healthier, longer lives free of disease.