Sugar: innocent again Nutrition: Sweet foods have been unjustly convicted of causing health problems, say scientists.

October 25, 1998|By Michael Utley | Michael Utley,COX NEWS SERVICE

Worrying about handing out all that harmful Halloween candy Saturday?

Been reading the best seller "Sugar Busters!", the new diet book that raises anew all those nagging questions about the health effects of sugar?

"Sugar Busters!" (Ballantine Books, $22) is a wildly popular tome that says a low-sugar diet will result in weight loss, reduced cholesterol, increased energy and "optimal wellness." The 270-page book follows in a long line of previous anti-sugar literature.

Everyone knows sugar makes you fat, right? Everyone knows it contributes to diabetes, heart disease and premature aging - not to mention that it makes your kids bounce off the walls. Right? Page 3 of "Sugar Busters!" states, "Sugar is toxic!"

Yet there is a growing consensus in the scientific community that sugar has been convicted unfairly again and again over the years.

"The fact is, sugar is no better or no worse than any other food," says Roger B. McDonald, a nutritionist at the University of California, Davis, who has studied the health effects of sugar. "Everything is toxic if you eat too much of it."

Sugar does not cause diabetes - "that claim has been dead for over 40 years," McDonald said. And most scientists believe sugar does not cause obesity - except for the fact that people who eat too much of it tend to eat too much of everything else.

Also, there are no direct links between sugar and heart disease, premature aging, hyperactivity and many of the other ills that have been attributed to it.

In Washington, the Sugar Association trade group started financing scientific research in recent years, and it has begun to get the word out that sugar is not as bad as many people think.

The most recent association-sponsored study, released last year by Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, found that "average, healthy people trying to lose weight do not necessarily have to restrict their sugar intake, as long as they lower the amount of fat and total number of calories they ingest daily."

By itself, one teaspoon of sugar contains just 16 calories.

The Duke study backed up the mantra of the nation's $21 billion sugar industry: "Sugar doesn't make you fat. Fat makes you fat."

The most well-known sugar study in recent years focused on hyperactivity in children. In 1995, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a comprehensive review of sugar research and concluded that "no effect of sugar on behavior or cognitive performance in children has been proven."

Many parents immediately scoffed at the report, concluding that its authors obviously had no children of their own. But many researchers suggested that childhood hyperactivity is linked with sugar mistakenly because children generally consume large amounts of candy and sugar at parties or other festive occasions.

The parties - not the sugar - make the kids excited, researchers said.

Moreover, numerous government agencies have conducted their own research and determined that sugar causes no adverse health effects. Of course, those who consume sugar and don't take care of their teeth will get cavities.

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have issued reports in recent years stating that sugar consumption does not cause heart disease, diabetes, allergies, cancer, obesity or other health problems.

Sugar blues

Despite all the research that says sugar in moderation is not harmful, attacks on it have taken their toll:

In 1981, Americans consumed more than 11 million tons of sugar. In 1982, as a health craze gripped the nation, food manufacturers turned to other sweeteners, such as corn syrup. Sugar consumption dropped to 9.5 million tons, a 14 percent decline from the previous year.

In the 1990s, there have been small increases in consumption, largely from population growth, but ...

In 1995, consumption hit a low of 8.5 million tons.

The drop is good news, according to the principal author of "Sugar Busters!" - 63-year-old H. Leighton Steward of New Orleans.

Steward, a businessman, and his three co-authors, all medical doctors, did no independent research to back up their conclusions. But he insists there is a mountain of anecdotal evidence.

"Americans are getting fatter and fatter and more diabetic every year," Steward says. "And that's because our bodies were never designed to handle all this sugar we've been consuming."

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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