Sweet, Seductive, and Deadly

woman holding donut by Thomas Kelley
by Thomas Kelley via Unsplash

How much added sugar should we limit ourselves to per day? 6 teaspoons (30g) a day for women, and 9 (45g) for men. We're not even close.

As the old saying goes, we are what we eat—and the highly processed foods we’re eating are not good, for us, for workers, or for the planet. When the Green America editorial team and I started to research this issue, we planned to focus on the environmental and labor impacts of sugar, as well as its potential toxicity, stressing how much of it comes from genetically modified sugar beets. But what wound up alarming us the most were the increasing number of new studies showing that sugar is fueling not only obesity and diabetes, but Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease, and auto-immune issues. These health assaults are hitting communities of color the hardest.

The Perils of Processed Sweets 

My personal sugary wake-up call started while reading Pulitzer-prizewinning reporter Michael Moss’s new book. In Salt, Sugar, and Fat (Random House, 2013). Moss points out that the dietary foundation of every processed food on the market rests solely on the three ingredients in his book title. In fact, he writes, the processed food industry carefully engineers these three ingredients to encourage cravings and overconsumption:

“To make a new soda guaranteed to create a craving requires [calculating] what industry insiders call the ‘bliss point,’ or the precise amount of sugar or fat or salt that will send consumers over the moon.”

And, notes Moss, when food manufacturers pull back on one of the big three ingredients, they’re likely to increase the other two: “Any improvement to the nutritional profile of a product can in no way diminish its allure, and this has led to one of the industry’s most devious moves: lowering one bad boy ingredient like fat while quietly adding more [of another, like] sugar to keep people hooked.”

After reading Moss’s first chapter, I looked at the nutrition label of the organic granola bar I was noshing on over my tablet computer and discovered that tiny little package contained two-and-ahalf teaspoons (12 grams) of sugar. The pretzels I usually feel good about snacking on contained 0 grams of sugar, but 259 mg of salt. And my favorite “healthy” juice? 22 mg of salt and over six teaspoons of sugar (32 g) in one serving. Forget vitamins, minerals, and fiber—my favorite snacks were loaded with salt and sugar, with a side of fat.

Nothing has woken me up to the health perils of all processed foods more than Moss’s book.

As we continued our research, the Green America editorial team quickly realized that perhaps the most formidable of these three core processed-food ingredients is sugar. People crave sugar from birth, writes Moss. In fact, adds Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California-San Francisco, “our brain lights up for sugar in the same way it does for cocaine.”

Lustig, in fact, says that sugar is, quite simply, a toxin.

coke power oj yogurt
8 tsp. sugar 7 tsp. sugar 4 tsp. sugar 8.5 tsp. sugar


Sugar and Poor Health 

The average American eats over 108 grams (22 teaspoons) of sugar a day, or 130 pounds a year, says Lustig in his book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease (Hudson Street Press, 2013). Our consumption of fructose—the problematic component of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—has doubled in the past 30 years, largely because Americans started becoming concerned about the amount of fat in food.

Manufacturers responded by reducing fat but increasing fructose, both in the form of sugar and HFCS. At 55 percent fructose, HFCS has only five percent more fructose than sugar (50 percent), making them both roughly equal dietary nightmares.

“Take the fat out of food, it tastes like cardboard,” says Lustig, echoing Moss. “And the food industry knew that. So they replaced it with sugar.”

That move, he says, is killing us:

  • Many experts agree that there are strong links between fructose consumption and the rise in what is known as “metabolic syndrome,” or a collection of risk factors that together increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, and stroke. The two most important risk factors are excess weight around the waistline and insulin resistance.

    “Every age group, including infants, has increased its consumption of fructose, the sweet molecule in sugar, in the last 30 years,” writes Lustig. “Metabolic syndrome is increasing at alarming rates and may soon overtake smoking as the leading cause of heart disease worldwide. As far as I’m concerned, our sugar consumption is the smoking gun here.”
  • Lustig and several colleagues published a study in February 2013 in the journal PLOS One, noting that sugar isn’t just linked to Type 2 diabetes—it directly causes it. The study found that every 150 kilocalorie increase per person per day in sugar availability corresponded to a rise in diabetes prevalence in 175 countries, independent of obesity rates.

    In turn, diabetes is a major cause of heart disease and stroke, notes the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse.
  • Alzheimer’s disease rates are expected to triple from nearly 5 million today to 13.8 million in 2050. While the main cause of this impending epidemic is a growing population of people over 65, as the Baby Boomer generation ages, fructose may play a role as well.

    If you buy that fructose is behind insulin resistance, which leads to diabetes, then chew on this: Dr. Suzanne DeLaMonte, a neuropathologist at Brown University, found that when she blocks the path of insulin to rats’ brains—or mimics insulin resistance— the rats start to show signs of Alzheimer’s. DeLaMonte and her team coined the term “type 3 diabetes” to refer to this “brain-specific form of diabetes associated with Alzheimer’s.”

    Dr. DeLaMonte told the New York Times that she believes diabetes and Alzheimer’s have the same root: “an overconsumption of those ‘foods’ that mess with insulin’s many roles.”

    “Sugar is clearly implicated,” she said.

    Several more studies have pointed to a possible link between sugar consumption and impaired brain function. A study of 249 Australian non-diabetic adults, published in the Sept. 2012 issue of the American Academy of Neurology’s medical journal Neurology, found that those with blood sugar levels “on the high end of normal” as defined by the World Health Organization tended to have shrinking in brain areas linked to memory and emotional processing.
  • Fructose is also making us fat. Last January, Coca-Cola aired an ad that cheerfully declared, “Beating obesity will take action from all of us based on one simple common sense fact. All calories count, no matter where they come from, including Coca-Cola."

    There is a consensus among independent nutritionists that Coke is wrong, and fructose counts more when it comes to weight gain. Through the years, several studies have linked fructose consumption with packing on the pounds. In fact, a 2007 analysis of 88 studies on soda and body weight from Yale University linked the fructose in sodas with increased body weight.

    Today, more than two-thirds of American adults and a third of US children and teens are now obese or overweight, a rate that has more than doubled since the 1970s. Likewise, US consumption of soda and other sugar-laden drinks has more than doubled since the 1970s. Coincidence? Most experts say no.
  • Sugar may increase the risk of getting cancer. A February 2013 study by scientists at the University Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid found that high blood sugar levels increase activity in a gene that is widely implicated in cancer progression.

    “We were surprised to realize that changes in our metabolism caused by dietary sugar impact on our cancer risk,” says Dr. Custodia Garcia, the lead author of the study. “Changing diet is one of the easiest prevention strategies that can potentially save a lot of suffering and money.”
  • Most sugar in the US is derived from genetically modified (GM) sugar beets, and the high-fructose corn syrup that’s ubiquitous in processed foods comes from GM corn. We detailed the potential health risks from genetically modified organisms in our “Frankenfood” issue of the Green American. Sugar and HFCS are bad on their own, but add in the genetic modification, and there’s even more reason to stay away from both.

    If you want to prevent this laundry list of health problems, Lustig and the American Heart Association recommend that women eat no more than six teaspoons (or 30 grams) of added sugar daily, and men consume no more than nine teaspoons (or 45 grams).
cereal cinnabon hamburger
2.5 tsp. sugar 13 tsp. sugar 1.5 tsp. sugar

Sugar and Race

People of color are more likely than whites to be diabetic. The National Institute of Health says 14.2 percent of Native Americans and 12.6 of African Americans had been diagnosed with diabetes in 2011, compared to 7.1 percent of whites. 11.8 percent of Latin-Americans and 8.4 percent of Asian Americans are diabetic, as well.

Could sugar consumption be behind this discrepancy? Communities of color are far more likely to meet the criteria of “food deserts,” or areas where most people do not have a grocery store within a mile of their homes. Lacking access to fresh produce, the more than 23 million Americans who live in food deserts, according to the US Department of Agriculture, are often forced to resort to fast food and processed foods from convenience stores—which, as Moss reminds us, have more than their share of salt, fat, and sugar.

When it comes to obesity, place and access to healthy food matters. From 2008 to 2010, researchers from the University of Chicago conducted a powerful study, in which they offered rent vouchers to low-income mothers, who were mostly black and Latino, so they could move from very poor neighborhoods to less disadvantaged areas. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011, found that the moms who moved to a better neighborhood lowered their risk of becoming “extremely obese” and contracting type 2 diabetes.

While the study didn’t point to sugar as the underlying cause, it’s easy to draw links between the salt, fat, and sugar in processed foods and the poor health of the people living in food deserts. And since food deserts tend to occur around color lines, it’s clear that sugar has a race-based impact, as well.

Sugar, Memory, and Health

It’s hard to mess with the warm and wonderful childhood memories that center around food, especially sugar-sweetened holiday and birthday treats. But, as Green America’s online editor Andrew Korfhage points out here, it’s not just our own health at stake: workers at many conventional sugar plantations around the world labor for poverty level wages under sweatshop-like conditions.

Add in genetically modified sugar beets and the pesticides coating conventional cane and GM sugar beets—including potentially carcinogenic atrazine and RoundUp/glyphosate—and it’s becoming ever clearer that Americans need to be more mindful about consuming sugar not just in moderation, but as little as possible.