Added Sugar: Killer, Accomplice, or Bystander?

Headlines in PR war on sugar rose to a new level this week with the publication of a study that found a tight correlation between added sugar and cardiovascular deaths. So the headlines went like this:

Eating Too Much Added Sugar May Be Killing You — USA Today

The Sweet Secret That Could Kill You — CNN

Americans Consume Too Much Added Sugars, Study Says, and It’s Killing Us — LA Times

Too Much Sugar Could Be Fatal, Study Finds — Washington Post

The fundamentals of schismogenesis dictate that this kind of hysteria will generate an equal and opposite reaction and the sugary drink industry obliged. Said the American Beverage Association in its response to the study that started all this:

This is an observational study which cannot and does not show that cardiovascular disease is caused by drinking sugar-sweetened beverages.

In other words, you can’t pin this on us. It’s the same tired line that the tobacco industry used for years to insist that no one had proven a cause and effect relationship between smoking and death. Of course, in the end that turned out to be a bad strategy. It’s an even worse strategy for the beverage industry because it invites an unhelpful comparison.

The study that kicked up all this dust was published online in JAMA Internal Medicine this week by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control. They found that people who consumed more than 21% of daily calories from added sugar had double the risk of death from heart disease compared to those who consumed 10% or less — even after controlling for a wide range of cardiovascular risk factors.

At this point, the evidence is building for a solid relationship between excessive sugar consumption and obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The key question is what will it take for one side or the other to win in the court of public opinion. The public seems to be turning against sugar. People are cutting their consumption, especially in drinks. A few foods with healthy halos (like some yogurt) sneak in under consumer radar with excessive sugar. But activists are quick to scold and re-educate.

The food and beverage industry seems to be quietly getting the message and re-structuring their product portfolios with healthier options and less sugar. Yet some factions within the industry keep on with the lame “you got nothin’ on me” messaging that fools no one and inflames their critics. More candor would be smart.

Can we just move on to a healthier food supply? Can the food industry move on to a business model that profits from the nutritional quality of their products, rather than the number of calories they prod us to consume?

Click here to read more in USA Today, here to read more in New Scientist, and here to read the study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Sugar Packets in a Cafe, photograph © 23hours / flickr

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