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Sugar in the crosshairs

Efforts to curb the American sweet tooth

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August 21st, 2015
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Every few years, there seems to be a new food villain. The American consumer has witnessed a war on artificial colors, a quick but mean battle over “pink slime” meat, and an all-out attack on trans fat. More recently, a number of health-related organizations have put sugar—particularly “added sugar”—in their crosshairs.

Twelve teaspoons per day

It’s an issue that bears some attention since Americans consume more sugar than any other country. On average, adults eat about 22 teaspoons a day, while children are eating 32 teaspoons a day. It is generally accepted that a diet high in sugar can have serious health implications, which is why the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued nutritional guidelines urging people to limit their sugar intake to 50 grams or about 12 teaspoons per day. 

“We have solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity, and tooth decay,” says Dr. Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development. “Making policy changes to support this will be key if countries are to live up to their commitments to reduce the burden of noncommunicable diseases.”

The WHO recommendation concerns free sugars or what is found in glucose, fructose, sucrose or table sugar, syrups, honey, and fruit juice concentrates. The WHO guideline does not include naturally occurring sugars found in dairy products or fresh fruits and vegetables because those do not generally put people at risk for disease.

Informing consumers

In another development, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has called for a revision of the nutrition label found on food products. Currently, labels show how much sugar is contained in a product, but the FDA is moving forward with a plan that would require manufacturers to itemize how much added sugar a product contains and also show how that amount relates to the recommended daily allowance. 

Added sugar is basically whatever caloric sweetener a manufacturer adds to a product. For example, something like ketchup or applesauce would naturally contain sugar since both tomatoes and apples have naturally occurring sugar. To make the products taste better, some manufacturers add more sugar. How much more is what the FDA wants to appear on nutritional labels. 

It also wants you to understand how much added sugar a product contains relative to the amount people should limit themselves to. For example, when you pop open a bottle of soda, you probably know that you are getting a heaping dose of sugar. You might even see on the label that one 20 oz. bottle contains as much as 66 grams of sugar. What you may not know is just how much 66 grams of sugar is relative to accepted nutritional guidelines. In fact, 66 grams of sugar is 132% of the recommended amount of sugar people should consume in a day.  

“The FDA has a responsibility to give consumers the information they need to make informed dietary decisions for themselves and their families,” says Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “For the past decade, consumers have been advised to reduce their intake of added sugars, and the proposed percent daily value for added sugars on the nutrition facts label is intended to help consumers follow that advice.”

Opposing viewpoints

Not surprisingly, the Sugar Association is pushing back on the WHO’s statement about limiting sugar, calling the science the WHO used to establish its standard “weak,” “inconclusive,” and “misguided.” It also opposes the FDA’s efforts to revise the nutritional labels, saying that it will only serve to confuse consumers. 

The American Heart Association (AHA), on the other hand, supports the efforts of revising food nutrition labels. It has its own added sugar intake guidelines, which are much stricter than those suggested by the WHO. The AHA suggests that adult men limit their daily added sugar intake to 38 grams, or about 9 teaspoons, and that women limit intake to 28 grams, or 6 teaspoons.

What is clear is that on the nutritional front, all eyes seem to be on sugar. Perhaps all this attention will push more food manufacturers to at least offer low-sugar versions of their products in the same way they offer low-salt products.

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