Too many sweets for the sweet

A new study links sugar consumption with increased risk of death from heart disease.

A new study links sugar consumption with increased risk of death from heart disease.

You can never have too much of a good thing, right? Except when you can. And when it comes to sugar, too much, however ‘sweet’ it may seem at the time, can literally kill you—this according to a new scientific study linking added sugar intake to higher incidence of cardiovascular disease mortality.

Most people these days are aware of the links between high sugar intake and diabetes, and that added sugar equates to empty calories that lead to weight gain. This recent study, however, found that Americans who consume at least 25% of their daily calories from sugar are almost three times as likely to die of heart disease than those that consumed less than 10%. The study used data collected from over 30,000 adults over 15 years.

25% calories from sugar may sound like a lot—and it is—but a significant number of people consume about this much sugar daily. In fact, 70% of adults monitored in the study consumed over 10% (the World Health Organization’s recommended limit) of calories from sugar daily, increasing their risk of heart disease and other health issues. According to the study’s authors, it didn’t matter what kind of sugar was consumed—be it corn syrup, cane sugar, fruit juice concentrate, etc.—too much is too much.

Just a few of the countless processed foods that contain added sugars.

Just a few of the countless processed foods that contain added sugars.

It’s actually frighteningly easy to over-consume sugar, especially if you eat out frequently or consume a lot of pre-packaged and processed foods (even if they are organic). It’s not just the dubious loads of sugar in sodas and candies that are to blame. Sugar is added to nearly every packaged food, from salad dressings and marinades to breads, yogurt, and soymilk, so it’s easy for those calories to add up without you realizing it.

Sucker Punch to the Food Industry—but will it help?

As more and more research is published about the negative health impacts of added sugar, Michelle Obama is stepping up with her campaign to promote healthier eating. To this end, the Obama administration is proposing a food label overhaul. If they get their way, the food industry would have to update portion sizes on their labels to more realistic portions, increase the font size of total calories, include total grams of added sugar, and change how they represent various vitamins and minerals.

Side by side comparison of current food label with the proposed label changes advocated by Michelle Obama.

Side by side comparison of current food label with the proposed label changes advocated by Michelle Obama.

I believe Michelle Obama’s heart is in the right place, I really do. But the fundamental problem with our food system is NOT food labels. I can’t fathom how increasing the font size of a calorie count is really going to create a shock wave of change in how people eat. Perhaps it’s a start…or maybe just a distraction from the bigger problems we choose to ignore, because they would require much greater effort.

The only way to cultivate a healthier lifestyle is to know and care about the actual ingredients in your food, not just how many calories are in a serving size. I have never counted calories in my life—I feel like it’s a waste of my time. As long as I’m consuming mainly whole, nutritious foods, I know I am eating healthy. Calorie counts can’t tell you the quality of your food. Not all calories are created equal: 100 calories of Oreos is not the same as 100 calories of almonds or 100 calories of strawberries.

Individuals who don’t have a good grasp on nutrition tend to rely on calorie counts as if it were a religion, and end up making poor health choices as a result. Substituting sugar for artificial sweeteners, for example, may be even more detrimental than the sugar itself.

What we should really be encouraging people to do is buy less processed food in the first place. That means buying the foods that DON’T have labels (or don’t need them), because they don’t have a multitude of ingredients in them. Fresh organic fruits and vegetables. Nuts and legumes. Whole grains. Natural herbs and spices. None of these products have any added sugars, or preservatives, or fillers.

While I think that changing the food label to display an ‘added sugar’ content is a positive move, fear it will just motivate the food industry to get more creative in how they design and market their products. Maybe this is too pessimistic of me. Maybe this will actually force food companies to reduce their reliance on cheap added sugars and create healthier products—even if they are processed. And I definitely have no sympathy for the cost these new policies may incur on the food industry, considering how many billions of dollars they earn at the expense of people’s health and wellbeing each year.

But there are always unintended consequences. In 2006, when the FDA began making food companies list trans fats on their labels, most companies decided to replace trans fats with cheap substitutes. The most commonly used replacement fat is now palm oil, the demand for which is now so high that it is resulting in massive destruction of rainforests worldwide so palm plantations can be planted in their place.

What I do hope for is that at the very least these changes continue to make consumers more aware of what they are purchasing and eating, so that demand continues to increase for healthier, more sustainable choices. Perhaps these small steps forward in food labeling will pave the way to eventually label GMOs in the U.S. (most European countries and Australia already do this) and create more transparency in the long chain from food producer to consumer. That would be “sweet”.

Posted on March 3, 2014, in Food politics, Nutrition and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I agree with you on so many points! Nutrition is so important, and the only way for people to actually get good habits is to learn about it early on – like brushing teeth!

    • Thanks for your comment–yes I believe starting proper food education at a young age can make a big difference. School gardens and cooking classes all the way! 🙂

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