We like sugar, OK? It makes us happy.
Sugar actually releases chemicals in our brains that make us feel good, and Mom and Grandma knew that a tasty cookie or treat would quickly put a smile on most any kid’s face. Today, sugar and sugary treats help us celebrate milestones, relax after a hard day, or simply add a little sweetness to our Monday morning coffee. There is nothing wrong with a little sugar.
The problem is that too much might be killing us, and not everyone thinks we should be concerned about it.
Sugar’s Sordid Past
Added sugar (sugar beyond what occurs in food naturally) is employing covert tactics to sneak into about 74% of packaged grocery store foods, and even if you are checking labels it may be hard to spot if it’s using one of its 61 aliases. Sugar sneaks in with pseudonyms like dextrose, fructose, evaporated cane juice, treacle, and the somewhat-disturbing “glucose solids” moniker.
But we’re getting savvier. Americans are, slowly, eating less added sugar. According to CBS News, we peaked in 1999 at 111 grams per day, but, as of 2016, we’re down to around 94 grams. That’s just over 22 teaspoons a day—more than double than what the American Heart Association recommends as the daily maximum for adult men. The stuff is addictive, perhaps more so than cocaine.
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The debate over whether or not added sugar is bad for us seems to be winding down—the results are in. In fact, they were probably in all along but hidden and downplayed by the food industry. Sugar is cheap and makes food tasty, after all. But regulations and cautionary labeling are expensive—best let someone else take the blame.
Attempts to make fat the bad guy instead of sugar in the 1960s may have fueled the obesity epidemic. Researchers from the University of California in San Francisco examined about 60 studies on the link between soda intake and obesity and metabolic disease, and they found that the majority of the studies showed a very clear link. As for the 26 studies that didn’t, they all had financial ties to sugar-sweetened beverage industries.
So why did sugar not get the discredit it deserved? Top sugar industry executives collaborated with researchers from Harvard to stem the tide of public opinion against sugar. Money exchanged hands, to the tune of about $49,000 by today’s standards, and Harvard researchers reassured their sponsors that they were “well aware” of the industry’s interests.
The 1967 Harvard review called the data implicating sugars as a health concern “weak” and put much more blame on saturated fat. The Harvard “findings” set the tone for the sugar/fat debate for decades.
The Changing Tide
But times may be changing. The March 2015 guidelines released by the World Health Organization were clear:
“We have solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay. Making policy changes to support this will be key if countries are to live up to their commitments to reduce the burden of noncommunicable diseases.”
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the USDA, call on Americans to limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and echoes WHO by calling for only 10 percent or less of all consumed calories to be from added sugars. Both the USDA guidelines and the American Heart Association link added sugars with obesity and poor heart health.
Ten percent of calories may seem generous. If you’re on a 2,000 calorie diet, that’s about 50 grams, or 12 teaspoons per day. The American Heart Association urges us to consume even less sugar for optimum health: no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams/150 calories) for men and 6 teaspoons (25 grams/100 calories) for women.
A 12-ounce can of regular soda has 10 teaspoons of sugar all by itself.
And when sugar is added to our bread, pasta sauce, yogurt, iced tea, salad dressing, and even chicken stock, staying under 12 teaspoons (let alone 6 or 9) feels impossible.