Is Sugar Toxic?

Sugar is “toxic beyond its calories” and should be regulated as strictly as tobacco and alcohol, according to a controversial proposal by a team of University of California, San Francisco researchers. Sugar isn’t just fattening—it’s a killer, contributing to 35 million deaths a year from non-communicable diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, they contend in a new report published in the journal Nature: “The Toxic Truth About Sugar.”

Scientists Robert Lustig, MD, Laura Schmidt, PhD, MPH, and Claire Brandis, DPH, also call for governments all over the world to ban or drastically restrict sales of sweets near schools, impose new taxes on foods that contain it, and set age limits for buying sugary foods, which they condemn as “the primary culprit of this worldwide health crisis.” Dr. Lustig is no stranger to fiery controversy: His 2009 lecture, “Sugar: the Bitter Truth,” went viral, with more than 2.1 million views on YouTube.

Is sugar toxic, addictive, and potentially lethal, a “poison” with health hazards that echo those of chronic alcohol abuse, including liver disease, as the UCSF team contends? Here’s a look at the latest research.

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Is there any scientific evidence that sugar causes heart disease?

A study published this month in Circulation: the Journal of the American Heart Association reports that men who drink one 12-ounce sugar-sweetened beverage daily (equivalent to a can of soda) have 20 percent increased risk of heart disease, the leading killer of Americans. The researchers tracked 42,883 men for 22 years.

The findings mirror those of a study of nearly 89,000 women, the Nurses' Health Study, which found that women who swigged one, or less than two, sugary drinks per day had a 23 percent increased risk of a heart attack. While the studies don’t prove that sweet drinks spark heart disease, they found that the increased risk remained even when such major cardiovascular risks as smoking, family history, obesity, and a couch potato lifestyle were taken into account.

What’s more, men who guzzled sugary drinks had higher levels of bad blood fats called triglycerides and lower levels of HDL, the “good” cholesterol that helps clean arteries, than men who shunned sweet drinks. Predictably, the American Beverage Association disputed any link between heart disease and sweetened drinks, arguing in a statement that other factors, such as stress, could have played a role.

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How bad is our sugar habit?

The average American adult downs 22 teaspoons of sugar daily, according to the American Heart Association, while the typical teen swallows 34 teaspoons. That’s triple the amount people ate 50 years ago. And sugar, in Dr. Lustig’s view, includes not just the granulated stuff we put in coffee, but also high-fructose corn syrup, which he calls “the most demonized additive known to man” and declares both forms of sweetener to be “poison.”

The number one source of sugar and HFCS in our diet is sweetened drinks—from soda to sports beverages. The increased sugar in our diet was linked to 130,00 new cases of diabetes, 14,000 new cases of heart disease, and 6,000 excess deaths between 1990 and 2000, according to a 2010 study.

Are sugar and high-fructose corn syrup equally toxic?

The adverse effects of sugar and HFCS aren’t just limited to the obesity epidemic now affecting 17 percent of US kids and teens, reported the UCSF team. “There’s nothing empty about those calories. A growing body of scientific evidence is showing that fructose can trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity and a host of chronic diseases. A little isn’t a problem, but a lot kills—slowly.”

Although sucrose (table sugar) and HFCS are metabolized differently, and have different chemical compositions, Dr. Lustig deems them equally poisonous and argues that a diet high in either sweetener contributes to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a disorder in which triglycerides build up in the liver, causing inflammation and scarring. If untreated, it can progress to liver failure.

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What’s the link between sweeteners and diabetes?

Although sugar and HFCS are metabolized differently, both contribute to insulin resistance, the disorder that leads to type 2 diabetes—and is the root cause of 70 percent of heart attacks. It’s also thought to play a role in Alzheimer’s disease and some forms of cancer, according to a report from University of Southern California, by increasing levels of inflammatory markers in the body.

Overdoing sugary foods can also put you at risk for metabolic syndrome, a pre-diabetic condition that affects 50 million Americans, many of whom don’t know they have it. An easy way to tell if you might be at risk is to measure your waist: a circumference of 40 inches or more for a man or 35 or more for a woman, is the number one warning sign, even if your weight is normal. 

What’s the bottom line on sugar and HFCS?

While many health experts disagree with the controversial proposal to regulate sugar and HFCS as toxins, there’s no doubt that both can harm your health. The American Heart Association recommends that women limit themselves to no more than 100 calories a day from added sugar (about 6 teaspoons) and men to 150 calories (9 spoonfuls).

The group also urges you to be particularly wary of liquid calories from sugar-sweetened drinks, such as soda, sports beverages, and fruit drinks. Not only does cutting down on them help you lose weight, but it could help head off a heart attack.

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