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Expert Advice

Five Things to Know About The Benefits of Cutting Added Sugars

Mass General’s Siyi Shangguan, MD, MPH says that reducing the sugar content of commercially prepared foods and beverages will have a larger impact on the health of Americans than other initiatives to cut sugar.

Five Things to Know About The Benefits of Cutting Added Sugars

How long would it take you to eat 57 pounds of sugar?

That might seem like a nearly impossible task, but in fact, the average American consumes 57 pounds of added sugars every year. This does not include natural sugars, such as those found in fruit, just the ones that are added to our processed foods.

Most added sugars are hiding in foods that you might not think of as “sweet,” such as granola bars, pasta sauce and even bread.

The impact of all this extra sugar is significant, contributing to high rates of heart disease and diabetes in the United States and skyrocketing healthcare costs.

How much could we save by cutting down on added sugars?

A team of researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Tufts University, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene created a model to simulate and quantify the health and financial impacts of an added sugar reduction policy proposed by the National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative (NSSRI).

Their findings, which were recently published in the journal Circulation, could be the key to keeping 500,000 Americans from potentially deadly cases of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as preventing up to 2.5 million hospital stays.

Here are five key takeaways from the study, which was led by Mass General’s Siyi Shangguan, MD, MPH:

  1. Added sugars are different from naturally occurring sugars The FDA defines added sugars as “sugars that are added during the processing of foods (such as sucrose or dextrose), foods packaged as sweeteners (such as table sugar), sugars from syrups and honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices.
  2. Added sugars are everywhere › With the average American eating 57lbs of added sugars every year alone, it is evident that added sugars are everywhere. Over 68% of packaged foods include added sugars. From ketchup to salad dressing, Twinkies to granola bars, they are nearly unavoidable.
  3. Adopting a policy to voluntarily reduce the amount of added sugars in food would substantially benefit American health › Researchers found that reducing added sugars to the levels recommended by the NSSRI could prevent 2.5 million cardiovascular disease events and 750,000 diabetes cases over the lifetime of the adult population. The reductions would also prevent 490,000 deaths due to cardiovascular disease. The reduction would not only be greatly beneficial to the general population, but it could also help reduce many health disparities, researchers found. The greatest estimated gains would be made among Black and Hispanic adults and Americans with lower income and less education — populations that consume the most sugar as a historical consequence of inequitable systems of food distribution and availability.
  4. Healthcare costs would drop with fewer added sugars in our diets › Researchers found that ten years after the policy goes into effect, the US could expect to save $4.28 billion in total net healthcare costs, including $118.04 billion over the lifetime of the current adult population ages 35 to 79. The policy would become cost-effective at six years and cost-saving at nine years. These are conservative estimates, researchers say, and even partial compliance by the food industry could result in significant health and economic gains.
  5. A policy-based effort may be the most effective way to better population health › The model also suggests that the best way to achieve these gains is by government regulators and members of the food industry working together to create a realistic plan and timeline for hitting the targeted sugar reductions. 

Keeping all this in mind, it is evident that even something as sweet as sugar has a bitter truth attached to it. Sugar isn’t going to be an easy habit to kick, but working towards reasonable and attainable reduction goals is essential to creating a much sweeter future for all.

Click here for more information on the health model.
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This story first appeared on the Mass General Research Institute Bench Press blog.

We hope that this study will help push the reformulation initiative forward in the next few years. Reducing the sugar content of commercially prepared foods and beverages will have a larger impact on the health of Americans than other initiatives to cut sugar, such as imposing a sugar tax, labeling added sugar content, or banning sugary drinks in schools.

Siyi Shangguan, MD, MPH
Siyi Shangguan, MD, MPH

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by
Nicoletta Valenzano
November 11, 2021