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Hidden Sweeteners Conceal a Bitter Truth

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Jan. 27, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Too many sugary foods -- and too little time spent exercising -- are creating a generation of overweight Americans with bad teeth, according to a study released in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.One researcher adds that it's also causing "striking" increases in adult-onset diabetes in younger age groups than ever before -- teen-agers and children.

In analyzing the diets of 15,000 Americans aged 2 and up, two FDA researchers the found that table sugar and sweeteners in processed foods account for nearly 20% of Americans' carbohydrate intake.

"This is a wake-up call," Joanne F. Guthrie, PhD, MD, consumer science specialist with the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, tells WebMD. "When people think of sweets, they think of candy bars. We wanted to show where the hidden sweeteners are, that you have to consider everything you consume. Calories count, no matter what they are."

"If you want to lose weight and be healthy, the place to start is with calories that are from the extras, the ones that don't contribute to nutrients," says Guthrie. "Added sweeteners make foods tastier and you like them -- and you don't have to give them up entirely. At the same time, it's a place to look at cutting back while still maintaining good nutrition."

Guthrie's previous research -- conducted between 1989 and 1996 -- had already pinpointed an increased trend in the amount of sweetened beverages like fruitades and soft drinks in children's diets. "We wondered about breakfast cereals, cookies."

It was no surprise "that soft drinks come out as a major [source of calories] ... about one-third of added sweeteners consumed," says Guthrie.

In 2- to 5-year-olds, sugars, sweets (candy) and fruitade drinks were major sources of sugars, followed by soft drinks. The 6- to-11-age group showed soft drinks playing an increasingly large role, says Guthrie. "Soft drinks were No. 1, followed by sugar and sweets, then sweetened grains -- cakes, cookies, that sort of thing -- then fruitade drinks."

Teen-agers showed a shift in the pattern, with both genders consuming about 40% of their "sugar/energy calories" in soft drinks. During college and early working years (aged 18-34), soft drinks continued to be the sugar of choice for men and women.

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As people got older, sugar sources switched. Cakes and cookies were popular with women over age 55 (soft drinks dropped to No. 2 for them). Older men's interest took a similar turn. After age 65, sweetened milk products like chocolate drinks were the beverages of choice for both genders.

Federal dietary guidelines advise that we consume sugars in moderation, says Guthrie. "But people are consuming more than we consider moderate."

Read food labels, she advises. "The label contains total sugars information. Total sugars can be both naturally occurring sugars as well as those added in processing. Like fruit cocktail in heavy syrup, it would have naturally occurring sugars from fruit but would also have added sweeteners."

Breakfast cereals turned out to be less of a problem than anticipated, Guthrie says. "Less than 5% of total intake of added sweeteners is coming from cereals. They're not really as bad as people think. They are highly fortified, good sources of nutrients, and some can also be good sources of fiber."

Look at your total diet first when cutting back on sweeteners, says Guthrie. "We're not saying you have to rule any food out. If you have candy or cookies or birthday cake and you are a normal, healthy person, this is not a problem. You have to look at in the context of your total diet."

Ronald Krauss, MD, nutrition researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and chairman of the nutrition committee for the American Health Association, tells WebMD, "The study put numbers behind what we've felt was true ... sugar intake does constitute a significant portion of calories, especially in younger age groups."

Use moderation but also choose foods that have high nutrient value, says Krauss.

Obesity is "an epidemic" in this country and it's particularly affecting children, Krauss says. "The incidence of childhood obesity is skyrocketing, as is the incidence of diabetes."

While diabetes used to be almost unheard of in children, it is now becoming a "fairly significant issue," says Krauss. "We're now seeing adult-onset diabetes appearing in younger individuals, teen-agers and younger, in numbers that have never been reported in the past. We feel it's related not just to eating habits but to a tendency to eat more than they're burning up. Certainly the consumption of calories in the form of foods that this survey has identified is a major source of calories ... wasted calories that provide nothing but weight-building fat and no other nutrients."

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Eating only 100 or so excess calories daily from sweetened foods -- when you don't burn it off -- can result in 10 pounds of weight gain per year, he adds. "All it would take is a 20-minute walk to burn that off."

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