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Regulate sugar like tobacco, American researchers urge

March 2012

Just a spoonful of sugar might make the medicine go down,
but according to a recent study published in the February issue of Nature, having too much sugar might lead to the need to take medicine in the first place.

The authors of the study, an interdisciplinary team of scientists trained in endocrinology, sociology and public health working out of the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF), would like to see the sweet substance controlled like alcohol and tobacco.

As with cigarettes, anecdotal evidence has warned against exessive sugar for decades. It has so far been seen as “empty calories” that leave little room for nutrition.

But the researchers say that the damage from sugar mirrors the damage done by alcohol, which, they note, is a distillation of sugar. The negative effects of too much sugar include changed metabolism, raised blood pressure, altered signaling of hormones and, like alcohol, significant damage to the liver.

“Sugar is toxic beyond its calories,” says researcher Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics in the division of endocrinology at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and director of the Weight Assessment of Teen and Child Health Program at UCSF. At his centre for obese kids, he has seen physically overweight but nutritionally starved youngsters with serious liver damage.

“As long as the public thinks that sugar is just ‘empty calories,’ we have no chance in solving this,” he says.

There is a huge gap between the public perception of sugar as a benign substance and the emerging science revealing its consequences, says researcher Laura Schmidt, professor of health policy at UCSF. She believes the public must be better informed.

The team’s suggestion to limit the use of sugar like alcohol and cigarettes through raising taxes and controlling access has been met by criticism by those who say it interferes with the public’s right to choose what they will consume.

“We’re not talking prohibition,” Schmidt says.

According to the Canadian Sugar Institute, Canadians consume about 63 grams of sugar per day, listed as glucose, dextrose, fructose, maltose, high fructose corn syrup and sucrose, usually topping the ingredient lists of packaged foods. The United Nations has stated that in every country that has adopted the Western diet—one dominated by low-cost highly processed food—has experienced rising rates of obesity and related diseases constituting the metabolic syndrome: diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular illness, cancer and dementia.

Obesity is not the cause, says the announcement, it is a marker for metabolic dysfunction in which diet, more explicitly sugar as the study demonstrates, is implicated.

The researchers would like to limit, “or ideally, ban” television commercials for products with added sugars and urge the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to move toward change. They would like to see sugar removed from the “Generally Regarded as Safe” list, which allows manufacturers to add unlimited amounts of foods on this list to their products.



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