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There's nothing sweet about the battles underway to control the nation's appetite for sugar.
Last week, the Walt Disney Co. announced that it's eliminating ads for sugar-laden fruit drinks, candy and snack cakes on its TV channels, radio station and website by 2015. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently outlined a plan to ban large-size sugary beverages at some places. Several states and cities are working on "soda taxes" on sugary drinks.
The motivation is clear: Health experts are wringing their hands about overweight Americans who are among the most obese in the world and heavier than they've ever been.
Is something so sweet really that harmful to health? Or is it just being maligned as people look for a scapegoat for the obesity epidemic?
The American Heart Association says in a statement that research has tied a high intake of added sugars to many poor health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
'Out of control'
The consumption of added sugars, especially from sugar-sweetened beverages, among some people in the country "is out of control," says Rachel Johnson, a spokeswoman for the heart association and a nutrition professor at the University of Vermont. American adults consume an average of 22 teaspoons a day, or about 355 calories, from added sugars, she says.
You don't remember adding 22 teaspoons of sugar to your coffee or cereal?
Consider that people are downing table sugar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (in soda), maple syrup, honey and molasses. Added sugars make their way into lots of processed foods and beverages, from soda, sweet tea and lemonade to energy drinks and sports drinks.
Sugar is "toxic" in the amount it's consumed by Americans, says pediatric endocrinologist Rob Lustig, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California-San Francisco. A little bit is OK, but it's the quantity that people are consuming that's harmful, Lustig says.
The heart association recommends that most American women consume no more than 6 teaspoons a day, about 100 calories, from added sugars, Johnson says. For men, it's 9 teaspoons, or about 150 calories. Kids should limit their intake to about the same amount, she says.
Others say not so fast. Added sugars have been "unfairly demonized" by some researchers, and "the reality is much more complicated," says James Rippe, a cardiologist who researches nutrition and fitness. He has worked with the food industry, including the Corn Refiners Association, which represents companies that make high-fructose corn syrup and other corn products.
"Obesity is a bad problem, but to single out one component of the diet as a silver bullet to fix it is fantasy," he says. "And it distracts us from the serious, multifaceted national commitment that we must have to solve this enormous public health problem of obesity."
Sugar doesn't deserve to take the rap for the country's weight problem, says Andy Briscoe, president and CEO of the Sugar Association. "Sugar has been around for thousands of years. It has been used safely by consumers, by our grandmothers and our grandmothers' grandmothers."
There are many kinds of studies that show sugared beverage consumption is linked to increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, says Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. There are a few studies showing no links, mainly funded by the beverage industry, but the bulk of research shows that these beverages are having harmful health consequences, he says.
Johnson says recent studies show a link between high consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and high blood pressure. So it's no surprise that researchers conducted a study of people who reduced that consumption and saw their blood pressure drop.
A matter of how much
But even nutritionists have a bit of a sweet tooth and don't want to come down too hard on something so tasty. "Even the staunchest anti-sugar advocates say it's a matter of degree," says Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University. "Nobody worries about 10% of calories or less from sugar. It's only when the amounts go over that problems kick in."
Johnson agrees: "Sugar is not the root of all dietary evil. A little bit of sugar adds to the taste of foods. But we've lost sight of moderation because of the gigantic portion sizes.
"We have to be careful not to demonize one ingredient in the diet," she says. "We did that with fat, and it backfired, because then, low-fat products came on the market that were low in fat but high in sugar.
"It didn't lead people to an overall healthier diet, which is one that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, non-fat dairy and lean protein."
(c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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