It is clear that the obesity epidemic is a key issue in the health reform debate as research conclusively shows that it drives significant increases in chronic diseases like coronary heart disease and diabetes.
What is less clear from a science and public policy perspective is the role sugar plays in both obesity and chronic diseases and what, if anything, should be done to regulate or manage its presence in our food and drink supply as part of the health reform debate in the United States.
“Sugar: Consumption at A Crossroads” is a groundbreaking report from the Credit Suisse Research Institute that explores the medical, economic, consumer and public policy implications of global sugar consumption.
Amongst the many data points and in-depth content in the report is this estimate of the economic impact of sugar in the United States:
“30% – 40% of healthcare expenditures in the USA go to help address issues that are closely tied to the excess consumption of sugar.”
The consumption of added sugar (sugar not contained in natural products like fruit or milk) or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has increased dramatically over the last few decades. According to this report:
- The world daily average consumption of sugar and HFCS per person now averages 17 teaspoons per day, up 46% from 30 years ago. This is the equivalent of 280 calories per day.
- In comparison, Americans now consume an average of 40 teaspoons per day. As a benchmark, the American Heart Association recommendation for daily sugar intake is six teaspoons for women and nine for men.
- Added sugars now represent 17% of a normal US diet with 43% of added sugars coming from sweetened beverages.
The report also includes a survey of physicians in the US, Europe and Asia. Key points from the physician view include:
- 90 percent of the doctors surveyed believe that the sharp growth in type II diabetes and the current obesity epidemic are strongly linked to excess sugar consumption.
- 82% of the doctors surveyed in the U.S. and Europe believe that sugar calories are handled differently by the body.
- On the question “is sugar addictive,” 65% think this is the case.
While medical research has yet to prove conclusively that sugar is the leading cause of obesity, diabetes type II and metabolic syndrome, the balance of recent medical research studies are coalescing around this conclusion. Advances in understanding the negative effects of refined carbohydrates on blood sugar regulation and cholesterol, and the metabolic impacts of fructose, are changing the traditional view that all calories are the same.
From a public policy perspective, governments and regulators have done little to address the impact of sugar consumption. Typical options often discussed, but rarely acted upon, include higher taxation as an attempt to reduce sugar intake while helping to fund healthcare costs related to obesity and diabetes, as well as increased spending on educating and explicit product labeling and warnings.
Worldwide, obesity now kills more people than starvation and malnutrition. The rapid growth of obesity, diabetes and related nutritional issues is arguably America’s top social health concern for which solutions can be devised to slow the growth and improve both health outcomes and costs.
And so, there is an opportunity to bring this social determinant of health into the mainstream of the health reform discussion. It’s a great example of the choices we can make to either continue to spend more money caring for the those medical maladies that come from the over-consumption of added sugars, or investing in a thoughtful response to increasing public awareness to deal with the root causes to slow the trend and improve the health of citizens.
- As part of health reform, what role, if any, should government play to address the growing implications in how the rapid rise of sugar impacts health status and eventually health costs?
- Should sugar be regulated in ways similar to the treatment of other items that impact consumer health such as tobacco products?
- Do you look at, or monitor, the level of added sugars found in the items you and your family consume? How does personal responsibility come into play when it comes to reducing the impact of sugar becoming a significantly higher portion of the average Americans caloric intake?
To go deeper on this topic:
“Sugar: Consumption at A Crossroads” by the Credit Suisse Research Institute
Get the Facts: Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Consumption from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)