A spoonful of sugar

My mother didn’t think eating too much sugar was good for us. We drank pop on rare occasions. When we were thirsty we usually drank water. Even when we had lemonade or Kool-Aid they were barely sweet and watered down. The limited sugar in our diet was in part because sugar was expensive compared to the fresh vegetables and ripe strawberries grown in our garden and the water from our well.

Last week, researchers at the University of California in San Francisco published the results of a new study on the effects of fructose on the health of children. It turns out that my mother was right.

The study examined what happened to the blood pressure, blood sugar levels, liver functions, and cholesterol levels of 43 obese children when their dietary levels of fructose were cut by almost two-thirds. To ensure the changes observed weren’t just the result of lower caloric intake, the sugar calories were replaced with other non-sugar carbohydrates. Some children initially lost weight when the sugar was removed from their meals. Researchers in response increased those children’s calories to make sure any changes in their health was not due to their losing weight. In all children tested, measures of metabolic function improved in only 9 days. Their blood pressure dropped. Their cholesterol levels went down. Their blood sugar levels decreased. “This study definitively shows that sugar is metabolically harmful not because of its calories or its effects on weight; rather sugar is metabolically harmful because it’s sugar,” said Robin Lustig of the University of California San Francisco, who led the study.

The study seems to indicate that the commonly held belief that high fructose corn syrup is not good for us has a basis in reality. Of course, the soft drink industry and the sweetener industry were quick to find fault with the size of the sample and the length of the study. The criticism is ironic since often those are the same criticisms cited by scientists reviewing industry studies claiming no ill effects from sugar consumption. Coca Cola is so worried about the bad press that sweet drinks are getting that they recently provided financial and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network. The Coke funded research and education organization promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise. The effect of exercise on weight loss has, however, recently been deemphasized by many studies.

Marion Nestle, the author of the book “Soda Politics” and a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, was especially blunt: “The Global Energy Balance Network is nothing but a front group for Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola’s agenda here is very clear: Get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake.”

The real reason for Coke’s interest in the science of obesity might have something to do with the fact that Americans’ consumption of sugary carbonated beverages has dropped by 25 percent in the last 20 years. In spite of those declining numbers, soft drink companies still produce more than 50 gallons of sugary sweet sodas for every American every year. The probability that sugar consumption itself may contribute to the growing number of children and adults exhibiting symptoms of metabolic disorder must make their accountants shudder.

The reasons for our growing waistlines and skyrocketing diabetes rates are probably not as simple as the harmful effects of added sugar in our meals even though evidence is mounting to support my mother’s dietary beliefs. Lack of exercise alone will not solve our weighty problems, but moving more is, without a doubt, better for our overall health and well being.

There is also a growing body of research that implicates environmental toxins have a role in the increasing incidence of metabolic disorders. Our weight is not only dependent on how much sugar we eat or how much exercise we get. Our metabolism is dependent on the proper functioning of how we produce insulin and how our cells respond to that hormone. Endocrine disrupters, chemicals that either mimic our own bodies hormones or keep our hormones from working the way they should, are everywhere. They are or have been used in industrial solvents, cleaning products, plastics, cosmetics, nail polish, fire retardants, antimicrobial soaps and pesticides. Many are persistent in the environment and even in our bodies long after their use is discontinued. Bisphenol A, at one time widely used to harden all kinds of plastics, including baby bottles, has been eliminated from many of those products, yet most of us would still find it in our blood stream.

Knowing that added sugar is detrimental to our health is one thing. Cutting it out may be more difficult. Check the ingredient list of most processed foods. Chances are high fructose corn syrup or sugar are on the list somewhere. You don’t have to look at a can of Coke. It’s right there after the main ingredient–carbonated water. Eliminating sugar sweetened drinks from your grocery cart might be one of the easiest changes one can make for a healthy life.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains