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Americans Sweet on Sugar: Time to Regulate?

Researchers Say Excess Sugar Should Be Regulated Like Alcohol and Tobacco
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 1, 2012 -- Americans are eating unhealthy amounts of sugar, and excess sugar should be regulated like alcohol and tobacco, say researchers from the University of California, San Francisco.

"We are now seeing the toxic downside [of excess sugar intake]," Robert H. Lustig, MD, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the UCSF Center for Obesity Assessment, Study, and Treatment, tells WebMD. "There has to be some sort of societal intervention. We cannot do it on our own because sugar is addictive. Personal intervention is necessary, but not sufficient."

His views on regulating sugar are published as a commentary in the journal Nature.

Regulating Sugar: Industry Weigh-In

WebMD asked the Sugar Association, an industry group, to review the recommendations.

Charles Baker, PhD, the association's chief scientific officer, responded by email. "When the full body of science is evaluated during a major review, experts continue to conclude that sugar intake is not a causative factor in any disease, including obesity," he says.


Sugar and Its Effects in Excess

Excess sugar in the diet does not just add calories, Lustig writes. Too much sugar has been linked with health problems, and they occur even in people who are normal weight, he says.

According to Lustig, too much sugar can be linked with some health problems including:

  • High blood pressure (He says fructose raises uric acid, in turn raising blood pressure.)
  • Diabetes
  • Increase in the blood fats called triglycerides
  • Obesity
  • Liver problems

Sugar has the potential for abuse, he tells WebMD. "Like tobacco and alcohol, " he writes, "it acts on the brain to encourage subsequent intake."

A key point: Lustig is talking about added sugars, not those naturally occurring in such foods as fruit or milk. He defines added sugar as ''any sweetener containing the molecule fructose that is added to food in processing."

Men should eat no more than nine teaspoons of added sugar a day, according to the American Heart Association. Women should eat no more than six teaspoons.

A typical 12-ounce regular soda includes about eight teaspoons of sugar, according to the AHA. The average intake of added sugars in the U.S. is about 22 teaspoons a day.

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