This spring, the World Health Organization made a bold move by urging people to restrict their sugar intake to less than five percent of total calories. That’s a sharp drop from the 16 percent that Americans consume on average, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In fact, the agency proposed changing food labels for the first time in a decade to reflect the amount of sugar added during the production process. And last month, the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a damning report on the sweet stuff. It alleged that food and beverage manufacturers and industry groups that make sweeteners have spread misinformation and launched a sketchy public relations campaign to downplay serious health risks.
A 15-year study released this spring for the Journal of the American Heart Association Internal Medicine concluded that people who consumed more than a quarter of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die than those who restricted their intake to less than 10 percent of total calories, regardless of age, sex, level of activity and body-mass index.
“The new paradigm hypothesizes that too much sugar does not just make us fat; it can also make us sick,” writes Laura A. Schmidt, PhD, of the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California at San Francisco, in the accompanying commentary “New Unsweetened Truths About Sugar.” That’s not the mention the toll sugar takes on mental health, including increased risk of depression.
Forget the substitutes, too. Even though diet sodas can taste like the real thing these days, they may not be any healthier in the long run. Researchers at Purdue University recently reviewed a dozen studies on the health impacts of diet soda and linked it to obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. It turns out that artificial sweeteners can throw your metabolism out of whack and make you crave more sweetness, just like regular sugar.
More than 70 percent of Americans eat at least 22 teaspoons of added sugar daily, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. That number sounds like a lot, until you realize you could easily hit that mark with a fruit-flavored yogurt, a couple tablespoons of barbecue sauce and a small sweet tea. If you follow WHO’s recommendation of eating no more than five percent of your total calories as added sugar, you’re limited to roughly six teaspoons as part of a 2,000-calorie diet. That’s what’s in a cup of granola or a couple packets of maple-flavored instant oatmeal.