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Study Sees Link Between Weight Gain and Eating Foods With Sugar Added to Ingredients

March 24, 2011 -- Researchers taking nutritional snapshots of the population around a major metropolitan area for more than 30 years say they’ve noticed something interesting: as consumption of added sugars has increased, so too, have body weights.

Researchers parsing the myriad reasons for America’s collective growing girth have looked at the contributions of total calories and fat, experts say, but less is known about what role added sugars might play.

Added sugars are sugars in foods that aren’t naturally occurring. They’re mixed in as sugar or syrups during processing or preparation.

The sugar in fruit, fructose, for example, wouldn’t count as an added sugar. But the high-fructose corn syrup that’s added to some kinds of fruit cocktail would fall into that category. So would sugars added to sweeten yogurt, soft drinks, and processed snacks and desserts like cookies, cakes, and pies.

“We’re looking at trends,” says study researcher Lyn M. Steffen, PhD, MPH, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “We looked at them in women and men, and in both men and women, added sugar intake increased since 1980.”

“At the same time, BMI [body mass index] has also increased,” Steffen tells WebMD. Though the study isn’t designed to prove that one is causing the other, the closely parallel trends over 27 years of data collection may point to the need for closer investigation. “It looks suspicious,” she says.

The study was presented at the American Heart Association's Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism/Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention 2011 Scientific Sessions.

Industry Perspective

An industry group that represents sugar producers says the evidence of a connection is lacking.

“A single study, performed by AHA [American Heart Association] or any other group, is inconclusive and needs further investigation,” says Andrew Briscoe, president and CEO of the Sugar Association. “When a major review occurs, the results always come back the same -- there is no scientific evidence to support a need to set an intake level for sugar.”

“It is necessary for consumers to understand the importance of practicing moderate consumption of all foods and beverages while maintaining a healthy lifestyle” Briscoe says. “Focusing on any one food takes away from the most important and more tangible goal of caloric balance.”

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