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Another reason to avoid added sugar
Because I'm an advocate of avoiding processed foods and sugary drinks, I don't spend a lot of time talking specifically about added sugars. Yet the average American drinks enough soda - between 45 and 50 gallons of it per person - to consume about 39 pounds of sugar a year.

Added sugars may affect heart health risk factors in children
Last week I shared a meta-analysis that concluded that higher levels of sugar intake in an adult's diet were "strongly associated with higher triglycerides, total as well as LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol), and blood pressure." While that study was interested intotal sugars and not strictly added sugars, this week's study suggests that those effects are not limited to adults.

Connecting the dots
Just a few months ago I reported on a study that demonstrated a link between the amount of added sugars in a person's diet and their risk of death from heart disease (Bite, 02/19/14), even after taking Body Mass Index into account.


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No Added Sugar

In the last several decades we here in the United States have eaten more and more sugar, mostly in the form of "added sugars." These sweeteners are usually in the form of sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup and are intended to make highly-processed foods taste better (or more accurately, sweeter). The most recent dietary data we have shows that more Americans over the age of 2 consume almost 16% of their total daily calories in the form of these added sugars.

Eating higher amounts of added sugars has been associated with overweight and obesity, along with tooth decay, diabetes, and an overall poor diet. Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta noted this and wondered if poor cholesterol scores might also be associated with eating more added sugar (JAMA 2010; 303(15):1490-1497).

In association with the Centers for Disease Control, the scientists were able to make use of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) for the 1999-2006 period. Over 6,000 men and women were included in the study, all without diabetes and not being treated for high cholesterol.

Using a food questionnaire along with a trained interviewer, the researchers were able to estimate the amount of added sugars each participant typically consumed. Then the participants were grouped into five groups, based on the amount of added sugars they consumed: under 5% of calories from added sugar, 5% to less than 10%, 10% to less than 17.5%, 17.5% to less than 25%, and 25% or more of calories from added sugar.

These five groups were then compared to the subjects' cholesterol scores, including overall cholesterol, triglycerides, HDL (the good cholesterol) and LDL (the bad cholesterol).

The researchers found that those who ate the most of their calories in the form of added sugar tended to be younger, non-Hispanic black, and have a low income. They also tended to smoke more cigarettes, and over the course of the study they gained the most weight.

When compared to those who ate the least amount of calories from added sugar, those who ate the most tended to be 3 times more likely to have clinically low HDL levels, 30% more likely to have high triglycerides, and 20% more likely to have high LDL levels.

What this means for you

This study does not show causality. That is, there's no proof that eating more foods with added sugar actually causes poor cholesterol scores. That said, we do know that avoiding foods with added sugar does mean eating better quality calories. Read the labels on any processed foods in your pantry. Is sugar in the list of ingredients, whether in the form of sucrose, simple sugar, or high fructose corn syrup? Best to think twice if it is.

First posted: April 21, 2010