Natural sugar has little to do with the obesity epidemic

Andy Briscoe is President and CEO of The Sugar Association, Inc.

Look no further than Heinz Field for evidence of the proud history shared by Pittsburgh and food industries that use sugar. For decades, the Steel City has also been Food City.

Unfortunately, all-natural sugar is currently being scapegoated for all kinds of health problems, despite the fact that Americans consume less of it now than we did during the days when Mean Joe Greene anchored the Steel Curtain.

Unfounded attacks not only distract us from advancing a real debate about solving the serious problem of obesity in America, but also pose a threat to the Pittsburgh economy and to the more than 40,000 workers in sugar-using industries across the Keystone State.

Here’s the reality: Department of Agriculture data show that U.S. per-capita consumption of real sugar (sucrose) is lower now than it was 40 years ago by about one-third. During this time, high fructose corn syrup has replaced sugar in thousands of products.

So when critics of “sugar” talk about its high or increased consumption, they inaccurately and misleadingly lump natural sugar (from sugar cane and sugar beets) together with man-made sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup and all the other caloric sweeteners manufactured from starch.

But sugar isn’t high-fructose corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup certainly isn’t sugar. The scientific name for sugar is sucrose, and it is a natural substance found in plants (primarily sugar beets and sugar cane). Sucrose, whether still in a plant or in our sugar bowl, is the same: equal parts fructose and glucose bound together at the molecular level.

By contrast, high-fructose “corn” syrup isn’t found in corn at all. Instead, advanced processes are required to manufacture glucose and fructose from corn starch, and they are then mixed in varying proportions, usually with high percentages of fructose — sometimes as high as 90 percent.

Despite this obvious distinction, and the fact that comprehensive reviews of published science have failed to support a causal link between sugar consumption and lifestyle diseases, the hysteria continues.

Look closely behind the headlines and it is strikingly evident that the continued attempts by a vocal minority and purported health advocates to stigmatize sugar as “toxic” or “poison” are baseless and have little to no scientific underpinning.

An excellent example is a recent study from JAMA Internal Medicine that condemns sugar as a contributing factor to cardiovascular disease and the media frenzy that ensued.

The authors themselves concede that an observational study like theirs is not proof of cause and effect and that the lack of unambiguous data forced them to estimate reported intake levels of “added sugars.” The authors also acknowledge that multiple biological mechanisms may be required to explain the associations observed between caloric sweeteners and the risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, the authors simplistically lumped together all caloric sweeteners rather than identifying them individually.

All those caveats still didn’t prevent headlines like “Sugar Tied to Fatal Heart Problems” or “Eating Too Much Sugar May Be Killing You” or the one that appeared in the Post-Gazette April 1, “Stirring Up a Sweet Storm: Mounting Research Shows Bitter Side of Sugar Consumption.”

When unsupported conjecture, sensationalism and media hype overshadow objective science, consumers lose and it’s a setback in the fight against cardiovascular disease and other lifestyle disorders.

Bottom line: All-natural sugar/sucrose is a valuable ingredient worldwide. Sugar is used in food not only because it provides a sweet taste, but because it also provides essential functional properties, especially the microbiological safety required in today’s food supply. Further, sugar makes many healthful foods palatable, which science confirms helps contribute to consumption of key vitamins and minerals necessary to maintain good health.

Nobody discounts the seriousness of the rise in obesity in America. But any attempt to confront the problem by laying blame on natural sugar — the consumption of which has declined during the same period that obesity has been on the rise — defies reason.

It also does a disservice not only to consumers, but also to the products that have contained sugar for decades and those who rely on it — in Pittsburgh and beyond — for their livelihoods.

Andy Briscoe is president and CEO of The Sugar Association, Inc.

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