The Science of Sugars

We live in a drive-thru, data-driven world. We consume information 24/7 by the “byte,” if you will. We chew up so much data, that our affinity for information has been likened to our love for food. Curiously, we even hungrily consume data about food, a growing trend that appears to have no end in sight.

“Growing” is a term that can also be used to describe our ever-changing world. But growth has not been limited to economies or populations in recent decades; waistlines have experienced unprecedented growth too. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of U.S. adults who are obese (BMI ≥ 30) rose steadily from 15.1% in 1980, to 23.3% in 1994, to 35.3% in 2010.  Is sugar to blame?

The Volume Is Turned Up, But Is The Consumer Tuned In?

There is no denying that the U.S. is an overweight nation. Reversing obesity trends is a major public health concern, but unfortunately, finding solutions to the obesity epidemic appears more difficult than finding fault. To some, there are dietary villains to blame and we are reminded of this daily in the media. Every macro-nutrient has taken its turn under the obesity microscope and most recently, the focus has been on sugars.

An association between sugar intake and obesity is often alleged, but whether there is a causal link is not scientifically proven. Regardless, the volume has been turned up on the sugar debate, but is the consumer tuned in? Findings from the 2012 IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey provide insights into consumer attitudes regarding sugars and their role in health. Consumers were asked which calorie sources (sugars, carbohydrates, fats, protein, or all sources) they believe are most likely to cause weight gain. Data show that 20% of consumers say that calories from sugars are most responsible. This response is only surpassed by the 30% of consumers who say calories from all sources have the same impact on weight gain.

The survey also found that more than 6 in 10 Americans (62%) believe a moderate amount of sugar can be part of an overall healthful diet. Similarly, 61% say it is not necessary to completely eliminate sugar from your diet in order to lose weight. Both of these responses are significantly higher than those observed in 2011 (52% and 32%, respectively). On the other hand, only 28% of consumers believe all sugars (high fructose corn syrup, table sugar, honey, etc.) are similar and are used by the body in the same way. This response remained unchanged from 2011.

Additionally, more than half of Americans (51%) claim they are trying to limit or avoid sugars when making packaged food and beverage purchasing decisions. However, 35% say they don’t pay attention to sugars content.

Science is speaking, but is anyone listening?

The prevalence of obesity in our country is concerning to everyone. Although the majority of experts agree that the cause of obesity is multifactorial involving multiple genetic, social, and environmental factors, scientific investigation continues in the quest to pinpoint a definitive cause.

More than any other dietary component or lifestyle factor, sugars have been studied for their potential association with obesity. A substantial amount of research has been conducted on the relationships between sugars intake and health outcomes. In fact, the cumulative body of evidence is quite impressive. Scientific consensus to date shows:

  • The link between sugar intake and obesity is inconsistent.
  • Sugar intake alone does not cause type 2 diabetes.
  • Sugar is not considered an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

A significant portion of research on sugars has been devoted to documenting intake. Since 1970, the United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service (USDA/ERS) has tracked average daily per capita calories from the U.S. food availability data, adjusted for spoilage and other waste. It’s important to note that the following statistics are “first estimates and are intended to serve as a starting point for additional research and discussion.”

Per capita, Americans consumed about the same number of calories (kcal) per day from caloric sweeteners in 2009 (440 kcal) as they did in 1989 (433 kcal). However, in the same 20-year time period the average number of calories consumed daily grew from 2,388 to 2,594. (USDA/ERS) During a similar period of time, obesity rates in adults ages 20 and older rose from 23.3% in 1994 (when 477 kcals/day were consumed from sweeteners per capita) to 35.3% in 2010 (when approximately 445 kcals/day were consumed from sweeteners per capita). (CDC, USDA/ARS) In other words, Americans are not eating significantly more sugars than they did in 1989, but they are eating more calories. Regardless of source, the overconsumption of calories has contributed to rising obesity rates, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The science on sugars will undoubtedly continue to evolve and many important questions remain unanswered. In the meantime, public opinion and open dialogue continues. Science is needed more than ever to guide these discussions. When science and opinion converge, informed opinion makes for great dialogue and the opportunity to hear unique perspectives, which leads to a better understanding of the issue. Science has an important voice and it is more critical than ever to listen to it.

“The Science of Sugars”

To further the scientific discussion, the IFIC Foundation and noted food science and nutrition expert, Marilyn D. Schorin, PhD, RD, FADA, recently authored “The Science of Sugars.” A four-part, peer-reviewed series of articles examining many aspects of the relationships between sugars and health (from dental carries to diabetes and sugar-sweetened beverages to satiety), this comprehensive report attempts to separate fact from fiction. The referenced papers are now published in the peer-reviewed journal, Nutrition Today, starting with Part 1, “A Closer Look at Sugars,” in the May/June issue. As a bonus, Continuing Professional Education (CPE) credit is offered for readers of Part 1.

All four parts; Part 2: “Sugars and a Healthful Diet,” Part 3: “Sugars and Chronic Disease Risks,” and Part 4: “Sugars and Other Health Issues,” are also available online ahead-of-print and will appear in print in coming issues of Nutrition Today. Stay tuned!