November 13, 2018
Top view of white sugar cubes on turquoise background

Semi-Sweet News About Sugar

by Berkeley Wellness  

Americans are consuming much less soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) than 15 years ago, according to a Harvard study on the beverage consumption of a large national sample of children and adults, published in Obesity in February 2018. SSBs are the leading source of added sugars for many people. Two problems with them: Liquid calories are not as satiating as calories from food; and added sugar has adverse metabolic effects when consumed in excess (see below). SSBs include soda, fruit drinks, and sports drinks.

Here are some mostly encouraging trends, with the biggest improvements seen in the last few years:

  • Between 2003 and 2014, average daily per capita calorie intake from SSBs dropped from 225 to just 132 in children (ages 2 to 19), and from 190 to 138 in adults. Nevertheless, SSBs still provide more added sugar than is recommended by the American Heart Association (just 5 percent of all daily calories), and that doesn’t count the added sugar consumed in foods.
  • The proportion of children who drank SSBs on a given day dropped from nearly 80 percent in 2003 to 61 percent in 2014. The proportion of adults drinking SSBs declined from 62 percent to 50 percent.
  • SSB consumption remains especially high among older children, teenagers, Hispanics, and black Americans.
  • Per capita consumption of milk, 100 percent fruit juice, and diet beverages also declined during this period, but not as much as SSBs. Water intake increased in all groups.

Doubling down on the dangers

Most, but not all, research has linked SSBs to a host of metabolic and cardiovascular disorders. Researchers reviewed 36 clinical and observationalstudies on SSBs from the past decade in a paper published in November 2017 in the Journal of the Endocrine Society. The weight of evidence, they concluded, indicates that people who regularly consume SSBs are at increased risk for hypertension and cardiovascular disease. In the long term, SSBs contribute to obesity, prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of interrelated risk factors that includes abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar or insulin resistance.Some studies found that the risks become significant when SSBs are consumed daily or at least five days a week, though several suggested that drinking them even just twice a week increases the risk of diabetes.

People who drink lots of SSBs tend to have a poor overall diet and other poor health habits. Most studies control for such factors, but clearly a heavy SSB intake is often a marker for an unhealthy lifestyle, lower socioeconomic status, and racial/ethnic disparities. The Harvard researchers pointed out that public health efforts such as soda taxes (like the one in Berkeley) may help more people break the SSB habit.

Also see Is Sugar Making Us Sick?