It’s the Sugar, Stupid: How Sugar and Other Caloric Sweeteners Got Hidden Under the National Radar

For the past 60 years, the nutritional emphasis has mistakenly been on dietary fat. Slowly, new research is proving that caloric sweeteners and starches are the real culprits in the diet. Even more, it’s just been revealed that important research information about the link between sugar and coronary heart disease was deliberately withheld from the public.

On September 12, 2016 the results of a study by Kearns, et al, was published in the JAMA [Journal of the American Medical Association] that points to the sugar industry as a manipulator of dietary research information The subterfuge happened back in the 1950s and 1960s, but didn’t get noticed or acknowledged until now. The public outrage has been so great, the sugar association just published an apology (of sorts) on its website. Here it is:

We acknowledge that the Sugar Research Foundation should have exercised greater transparency in all of its research activities, however, when the studies in question were published funding disclosures and transparency standards were not the norm they are today. Beyond this, it is challenging for us to comment on events that allegedly occurred 60 years ago, and on documents we have never seen.

The bottom line: sugar went under the national and world radar and stayed there for a half-century. In the meantime, as a nation, we got fatter. In the 1970s, before eating guidelines were introduced, the national adult obesity rate was around 12% and national fat consumption was estimated at around 40% of total daily calories. Today the national obesity rate is about 36% and the national fat consumption rate is around 34% of daily calories, a statistically significant achievement that did not happen by accident. What went wrong?

Here are some milestones to consider:

1. In 1978 high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was introduced into our food supply. It was designed to taste just like sugar, and it does. Most people can’t tell the difference. HFCS is cheaper to make, easier to store, and easier to incorporate into recipes. Consequently, it quickly became the dominant sweetening agent in the world.

People used to think it was a smarter, healthier choice than sugar because it has a lower glycemic index. Obviously, it’s not healthier and it’s not smarter. In fact, many drink and food manufacturers are now making and advertising products made with “real sugar.”

2. In 1980 the “Lipid Theory” of disease was officially introduced, and the “fat is bad” message became forever cemented in our culture. The USDA released Dietary Guidelines for America that told us to eat less fat, less saturated fat, and less cholesterol. There was no mention of sugar or other caloric sweeteners.

3. In 1986 the FDA released a statement saying there’s “no conclusive evidence” that sugar causes chronic disease.

4. In 2005 the FDA published Dietary Guidelines that allowed for up to 25% of daily calories to be consumed as sugar.

Did these milestones turn us into a nation of sickos and fatties? Impossible to say for sure, but they’re strongly implicated. It’s time, at long last, to consider that the much-maligned Robert Atkins might have been right when he said “sugar is metabolic poison.” The smartest way to progress out of this pickle is to recognize the sweetening agents in our food supply and more carefully manage them.

The term “sugar” is used here in a generic way to include all compounds made with glucose and fructose. Most people don’t realize that common table sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose, and in fact all caloric sweeteners are a variation on the glucose/fructose composition theme. The only difference is proportion. HFCS has between 55%-65% fructose and 45%-35% glucose. Agave syrup might have as much as 90% fructose and 10% glucose. Honey has about 38% fructose, 62% glucose. Maple syrup is about 33% fructose, 66% sucrose.

People think glucose is bad and fructose is good. Glucose gets bad press because it’s associated with type 2 diabetes and weight gain. It’s also recognized as the villain in the glycemic index. Fructose, on the other hand, seems like it should be healthier because of its association with fruit.

The truth is that glucose and fructose are equally problematic to health and weight. The glucose portion of the caloric sweetener compound ends up in the bloodstream, which raises blood sugar, which raises insulin production, which makes you fat and sick. The fructose portion goes directly to the liver and is converted to triglycerides, which makes you fat and sick. (Don’t worry about the small amount of fructose in a fresh piece of fruit.)

High blood sugar and high triglycerides are both undesirable metabolic conditions that are implicated in every chronic disease as well as increases in body weight and body fat. Unfortunately, there’s no tool for assessing the impact of glucose and fructose. All we have is the glycemic index (GI), which measures only glucose. As you now know, glucose is just half the sweetening picture.

A glucose measurement can also be a very misleading. Agave syrup, for example, has a very high percentage of fructose, and anything that has a high percentage of fructose will have a low glycemic index. That’s how agave syrup got falsely labeled as a so-called healthy alternative to sugar. It’s not.

That said, the glycemic index can still be used as one of many reference points. Anything over 59 is considered high. Table sugar has a glycemic index around 60.

Calories are another reference point. One teaspoon of table sugar has 16 calories. Syrups and honey have slightly higher caloric values because they’re denser. You’ll quickly discover that all caloric sweetening agents have similar amounts of calories. It doesn’t matter if the product is organic, raw, or seems less processed. A caloric sweetener is a caloric sweetener.

Grams are another. When you’re buying a product off the shelf, 3 grams of added sugar per serving is a reasonable target. One gram has 4 calories, so three grams is just 12 calories. The maximum recommended amount of added sugar per day for women is 25 grams (about 2 tablespoons), for men 40 grams (about 3 tablespoons), and for dieters 15 grams (about 1 tablespoon).

Good luck.