Industry groups respond to sugar pandemic claims

by Jeff Gelski
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WASHINGTON — Both the American Beverage Association and The Sugar Association, Inc. have refuted claims about sugar found in an article in the Feb. 2 issue of Nature. Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, claim sugar is fueling a global obesity pandemic by contributing to 35 million deaths annually worldwide from non-communicable diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

The researchers suggest government regulations similar to those imposed on alcohol and tobacco should be imposed on sugar. One researcher calls sugar “toxic.”

A National Institutes of Health-funded program at U.C.S.F. funded the study. The U.C.S.F. researchers said sugar at the levels consumed by most Americans changes metabolism, raises blood pressure, critically alters the signaling of hormones and damages the liver. They added the health effects mirror those of drinking too much alcohol.

Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics in division of endocrinology at the U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Hospital, was one of the researchers.

“There are good calories and bad calories, just as there are good fats and bad fats, good amino acids and bad amino acids, good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates,” he said. “But sugar is toxic beyond its calories.”

The Washington-based American Beverage Association responded, “The authors of this commentary attempt to address the critical global health issue of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. However, in doing so, their comparison of sugar to alcohol and tobacco is simply without scientific merit. Moreover, an isolated focus on a single ingredient such as sugar or fructose to address health issues noted by the World Health Organization to be caused by multiple factors, including tobacco use, harmful alcohol use, an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity, is an oversimplification.

“There is no evidence that focusing solely on reducing sugar intake would have any meaningful public health impact. Importantly, we know that the body of scientific evidence does not support that sugar, in any of its various forms, including fructose, is a unique cause of chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease or metabolic syndrome.”

The Sugar Association, also based in Washington, said, “We consider it irresponsible when health professionals use their platforms to instill fear by using words like diabetes, cancer and even death without so much as one disclaimer about the fact that the incomplete science being referenced is inconclusive at best.”

The U.C.S.F. researchers said government interventions that reduced alcohol and tobacco consumption might serve as models for sugar. The interventions might include levying special sales taxes, controlling access, and tightening licensing requirements on vending machines and snack bars that sell high sugar products in schools and work places.

“We’re not talking prohibition,” said Laura Schmidt, a researcher in the article and a professor of health policy at U.C.S.F. “We’re not advocating a major imposition of the government into people’s lives. We’re talking about gentle ways to make sugar consumption slightly less convenient, thereby moving people away from the concentrated dose. What we want is to actually increase people’s choices by making foods that aren’t loaded with sugar comparatively easier and cheaper to get.”

The A.B.A. noted the article advocates taxes on beverages with sugar.

“While such taxes would surely raise revenue, there is no evidence that such measures would significantly impact public health,” the A.B.A. said.

The Sugar Association opposed government interventions and said, “The authors of the comment conclude their piece by prosing that the government all but takes over our food system. We are confident that the American people are perfectly capable of choosing what foods to eat without stark regulations and unreasonable bans imposed upon them.”

The Sugar Association also disputed the researchers’ claim that worldwide consumption of sugar has tripled during the past 50 years. The association cited estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that Americans consume 425 more calories per day than they did 40 years ago. Caloric sweeteners account for 38 of those 425 calories.

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