If UCSF researcher Robert H. Lustig and his team had their way, sugar would be regulated similarly to alcohol and tobacco, and would be knocked off of a USDA list of foods "Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS)," which allows food manufacturers to add unlimited amounts to any food.Using four criteria established in 2003 to justify regulating alcohol, these scientists make a case for why sugar is a public health concern and should be regulated:
- Sugar is unavoidable: In recent years, it is being added to almost all processed foods. Even if I avoid cookies and desserts, for example, and I think I'm controlling my intake, I'm probably still taking in more sugar than what's necessary through processed snacks, bread, condiments, and beverages. According to the USDA (PDF), the average American ate the equivalent of 52 teaspoonfuls of sugar a day in 2000, compared to the 10 teaspoonful daily maximum recommended. Per capita consumption was up 39 percent from the 1950s.
- It's toxic: The paper maintains that excessive consumption of sugar affects health beyond just adding empty calories. The food has been linked to metabolic dysfunction and its ensuing diseases, and Lustig asserts that fructose (one of two molecules that along with glucose makes up sugar) can have the same impact on the liver as alcohol. For more on fructose, read my coworker Kiera Butler's piece on sugar versus corn syrup. Also, see Gary Taubes's article on sugar's toxicity, which features Lustig, in the New York Times magazine last spring.
- It's addictive: This claim appears a little extreme (hard to imagine a group called Sugarholics Anonymous), but the paper cites various studies that examine human dependency on sugar. The sweetener dampens the suppression of hormones that signal hunger and satisfaction to the brain, so the more we eat, the less likely we are to realize when we've had enough of the stuff, and the more likely we are to want more.
- Sugar has a negative impact on society: It's been linked to metabolic dysfunction, which can lead to heart disease, obesity, liver disease, and diabetes. In 2011, the United Nations declared that for the first time ever, chronic non-communicable diseases like these posed a greater burden on the world than infectious diseases. A 2011 University of Minnesota study linked the uptick in sugar consumption over the last 30 years to an increase in average body weight. Currently, seventy-five percent of all US health-care dollars are spent on treating metabolic syndrome and its resulting diseases.