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How much sugar is too much? A new tool sheds some light

November 10, 2014

These days, sugar is pretty much everywhere in the American diet. A new initiative from the University of California, San Francisco spells out the health dangers of this glut of sugar in clear terms.

For the project, called SugarScience, a team of researchers distilled 8,000 studies and research papers and found strong evidence that overconsumption of added sugar contributes to three major chronic illnesses: heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and liver disease.

Laura Schmidt, a professor of health policy at UCSF, is leading the project. (Dr. Robert Lustig, a longtime anti-sugar crusader, is also on the team.) "Right now, the reality is that our consumption of sugar is out of whack, and until we bring things back into balance, we need to focus on helping people understand what the consequences are to having the average American … consume too much added sugar," Schmidt says.

As part of its outreach, Schmidt's team has created a user-friendly website and is partnering with health departments across the country to spread the word. The website includes downloadable resources, including television commercials, that public health officials can localize for their own cities.

"And that's what SugarScience is all about," Schmidt says. "It's about translating the information that's locked up in the medical journals and sharing it with the public in ways that are understandable."

Health departments from San Francisco to New York City have already agreed to participate in outreach. In a statement, the New York Department of Health called SugarScience a "wonderful resource … something that can be used by researchers, the public health community and those who just want thorough information."

Schmidt is quick to point to the food environment as a driver in the increase of obesity that America has seen in the last generation. "It's not like Americans suddenly lost their willpower," she says. "The only major change in the diet that explains the obesity epidemic is this steep rise in added sugar consumption that started in the 1980s."

That sugar isn't just making us fat, she says, "it's making us sick."

Schmidt insists the team, which includes researchers from the University of California, Davis and Emory University, is not "anti-sugar." Instead, it wants to help people understand how much sugar is too much.

The average American consumes the equivalent of 19.5 teaspoons a day in added sugars, but there are no federal guidelines recommending a limit. SugarScience suggests the same limits advocated by the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization: no more than 9 teaspoons a day for men and no more than 6 teaspoons a day for women.

But knowing how much sugar you're eating can be challenging. Here are some key facts from the SugarScience website.

  • Added sugar is hiding in 74 percent of packaged foods. (Proposed changes to the nutrition label would change this by including a separate line for added sugars.)
  • Fructose, a common type of sugar, can damage your liver more than other kinds of sugar — just like too much alcohol can.
  • One 12-ounce can of soda a day can increase your risk of dying of heart disease by one-third.

The site also includes tips on concrete steps that people can take to cut down on sugar. The most straightforward way is to stop drinking sugar-sweetened drinks, like sodas, sports drinks and energy drinks, the researchers say. More than one-third of added sugar in the diet comes from sugary drinks.

They also recommend reading nutrition labels. While there are 61 different names for sugar on food labels, SugarScience notes that if the chemical name has an "ose" at the end— as in dextrose, fructose, lactose — there's a good change it's added sugar.

Dean Schillinger, a professor of medicine at UCSF and a primary care doctor at San Francisco General Hospital, is also part of the SugarScience team. He first came to San Francisco in 1990 at the peak of the AIDS epidemic. "At that point, 1 out of every 2 patients we admitted was a young man dying of AIDS," he says. At that time, there were no treatments, little any doctor could do.

Today, he says, there are good treatments, and it's rare to admit someone to the hospital dying of AIDS.

Instead, Schillinger says, that same ward, Ward 5A, where young men died of AIDS is now filled with diabetes patients.

"I feel like we are with diabetes where we were in 1990 with the AIDS epidemic," Schillinger said. "The ward is overwhelmed with diabetes — they're getting their limbs amputated; they're on dialysis. And these are young people. They are suffering the ravages of diabetes in the prime of their life."

But unlike AIDS, where activists pushed hard for action from researchers and governments, there's little activist response for diabetes "because it affects low-income communities disproportionately," Schillinger said. "We're at the point where we need a public health response to it."

The timing of the SugarScience launch is not a coincidence. The UC researchers waited until after the midterm elections when Bay Area residents were voting on two soda tax measures, one of which (in Berkeley) passed. Schmidt says that since the university is a public institution, it could not be seen as trying to sway votes with the announcement of the new initiative.

Lisa Aliferis is the founding editor of KQED's State of Health blog.

Copyright 2014 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

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