Three leading obesity researchers from the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, Robert Lustig, Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis, wrote that sugar should be restricted through similar mechanisms as those used to restrict alcohol or tobacco use. Age restrictions, taxation and distribution restrictions could all be used to curb sugar consumption, they argued – and cited research that has linked excessive fructose consumption (found in similar amounts in both sucrose and high fructose corn syrup) to hypertension, insulin resistance, and high triglycerides.
They wrote: “Evolutionarily, sugar was available to our ancestors as fruit for only a few months a year (at harvest time), or as honey, which was guarded by bees. But in recent years, sugar has been added to nearly all processed foods, limiting consumer choice. Nature made sugar hard to get; man made it easy.”
Food industry groups have issued detailed statements disagreeing with this assessment, with the Sugar Association, for example, calling the article “flawed” and “irresponsible”.
“We consider it irresponsible when health professionals use their platforms to instill fear by using words like "diabetes," "cancer," and even "death," without so much as one disclaimer about the fact that the incomplete science being referenced is inconclusive at best,” the association said in a statement.
“…We are confident that the American people are perfectly capable of choosing what foods to eat without stark regulations and unreasonable bans imposed upon them.”
The American Beverage Association also criticized the commentary, saying that there is no evidence that sugar in any form is a unique cause of any chronic health condition.
“An isolated focus on a single ingredient such as sugar or fructose to address health issues noted by the World Health Organization to be caused by multiple factors, including tobacco use, harmful alcohol use, an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity, is an oversimplification,” it said.
“There is no evidence that focusing solely on reducing sugar intake would have any meaningful public health impact.”
“The issue is quantity”
Many may find it unsurprising that the sugar and soft drink industries have taken issue with the commentary, but dietitians and nutrition experts, too, have long supported the idea that sugar can be part of a healthy diet.
Nutrition expert Marion Nestle commented on her Food Politics site: “What is one to make of this? Sugar is a delight, nobody is worried about the fructose in fruit or carrots, and diets can be plenty healthy with a little sugar sprinkled here and there.
“The issue is quantity. Sugars are not a problem, or not nearly as much of a problem, for people who balance calorie intake with expenditure.
“Scientists can argue endlessly about whether obesity is a cause or an effect of metabolic dysfunction, but most people would be healthier if they ate less sugar.”
The American Heart Association recommends that people consume no more than 5% of their daily calories from added sugars.
According to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the US Department of Agriculture last January, 35% of the average American’s calorie consumption takes the form of added sugars.