A great way to increase longevity — and stay lean and athletic — is to stay off the sugar, nutritionists have long argued. But obesity and diabetes aren't the only potential drawbacks of the sweet stuff, according to a team of scientists at University of California San Francisco.
They hope to educate the public about all the effects of sugar and have just launched a new website called SugarScience.org.
Laura Schmidt is the lead investigator with SugarScience.org and a professor in the school of medicine at UC San Francisco. She spoke with Take Two for more on why the website was launched and what research has found about sugar.
How did you and your colleagues come up with this idea?
Sugar science is really about getting what we know out of the medical journals and into the public awareness. As we've seen, rising rates of obesity and metabolic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, the science around sugar and health has really taken off. We're thinking about things in very different ways than we used to. We used to just think about sugar as extra calories, something that was making us fat.
And more and more scientists are starting to realize that sugar in the kind of quantities that Americans are consuming it on average is making us sick. And no one had really surveyed the literature. And nobody for sure had taken that information and tried to share it with the American public.
You looked through 8,000 research papers?
Eight-thousand scientific papers form the base, and we have a team of 12 scientists from all different disciplines, three different universities, who have gone through these papers, including papers funded by industry to find out the answer to how much sugar are we consuming, how much is too much and exactly how is it impacting our health?
Besides diabetes and obesity, what else should we be worried about?
What's really important is to think about the effects of, say, consuming a large can of soda or sports drink, and the impact that has when it hits your body. If you’re Kobe and running around the basketball court shooting hoops as soon as that sports drink hits your system, it's going to get burned right off as energy. But if you're kicking back in your ... recliner like most of us, watching the game on a wide screen, your body is going to lay that sugar down as fat.
What we're really starting to appreciate is the different kinds of sugar that we're consuming get processed in our bodies differently. There's a lot of research going on right now about a particular kind of sugar: fructose. It’s a sugar that makes fruit taste sweet, but also half of table sugar is fructose, and half or more of high fructose corn syrup is fructose. This particular sugar, what we've learned in the last five to 10 years, is it is primarily processed in the liver, which is also the place that processes alcohol, and fructose has similar effects on liver as alcohol does. So when that can of soda or sports drink hits your liver and isn’t burned off as energy, your liver turns that sugar into fat globules, and it will lay those fats down in the liver, causing fatty liver disease, just like what people who drink too much get.
You said fructose is found in apples. What is the difference between eating an apple and downing a can of soda in terms of how the body processes the sugar?
The apple is not going to cause fatty liver disease. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a condition we didn’t even see 30 years ago and is now affecting 31 percent of adult Americans and 13 percent of our kids. If left unchecked, it will lead to cirrhosis of the liver and require a liver transplant. When you consume the sugar in an apple, it’s a totally different story. It comes surrounded by nutrients and fiber and is totally fine.
You talk on the site about how hard it is to avoid added sugar these days.
Added sugar is hiding in 74 percent of packaged foods in your grocery store. Even things that taste savory or are marketed as healthy may have sugar to increase shelf life or palatability. And it becomes hard for people to navigate food labels and know how much sugar they are consuming. And something we do on the site is help people understand how they can lower their consumption of added sugar and especially those hidden sugars that we really don’t even get to enjoy as sweet treats.
What are your recommendations for normal healthy sugar consumption?
We recommend women should stick to six teaspoons (25 grams) a day. Men should stick to nine teaspoons or less (38 grams).
Second, you need to read those labels. You need to know what you're eating. If you log on to SugarScience.org you can see all 60 names for sugar that currently appear on those ingredient labels. People can also write our science team. We have 12 experts standing by willing to answer specific questions. You can download helpful tools and get lots of information.