In 1776, at the time of the American Revolution, Americans consumed about four pounds of sugar per person each year. By 1850, this had risen to 20 pounds, and by 1994 to 120 pounds. Now, we’re closer to 160 (See How Much Added Sugar is Too Much?). Half of table sugar is fructose, taking up about 10 percent of our diet. This is not from eating apples, but rather the fact that we’re each guzzling the equivalent of a 16-ounce soft drink every day; that’s about 50 gallons a year.
Even researchers paid by the likes of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group and The Coca Cola Company acknowledge that sugar is empty calories, containing “no essential micronutrients, and therefore if we’re trying to reduce calorie intake, reducing sugar consumption is obviously the place to start.” Concern has been raised, though, that sugar calories may be worse than just empty.
A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that “the fructose added to foods and beverages in the form of table sugar and high fructose corn syrup in large enough amounts can trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity and other chronic diseases.”
Fructose hones in like a laser beam on the liver, and like alcohol, fructose can increase the fat in the liver. The increase in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is one of the most remarkable medical developments over the past three decades—the emergence of fatty liver inflammation as a public health problem here and around the globe.
These may not be messages that the sugar industry or beverage makers want to hear. In response, the director-general of the industry front group, the World Sugar Research Organization, replied, “Overconsumption of anything is harmful, including water and air.” Yes, he compared the overconsumption of sugar to breathing too much.
Under American Heart Association’s new sugar guidelines, most American women should consume no more than 100 calories per day from added sugars, and most American men should eat or drink no more than 150. That means one can of soda could take us over the top for the day. The new draft guidelines from the World Health Organization suggest we could benefit from restricting added sugars to under 5 percent of calories. That’s about six spoonfuls of added sugar. I don’t know why they don’t just recommend zero as optimal, but you can get a sense of how radical their proposal is given that we consume an average of 12-18 spoonfuls a day right now.
This underscores why a whole foods, plant-based diet is preferable to a plant-based diet that includes processed junk.
I’ve touched on the harm of refined sugars before in:
- Flesh and Fructose
- Are Sugary Foods Addictive?
- Mercury in Corn Syrup?
- Dietary Guidelines: Pushback from the Sugar, Salt, and Meat Industries
For healthful alternatives in baking, see The Healthiest Sweetener, and for beverages, Erythritol May Be a Sweet Antioxidant.
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.
Image Credit: Adam Engelhart / Flickr
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