SAN FRANCISCO -- A team of researchers at the University of California at San Francisco say sugar should be identified alongside alcohol and tobacco as a health danger, and governments should tax sweetened drinks and food as part of their efforts to combat it.
In an article called "The Toxic Truth About Sugar" published Feb. 1 in the journal Nature, the scientists suggest that sugar's potential for "abuse," coupled with its "toxicity and pervasiveness in the Western diet," make it a prime culprit in a worldwide health crisis.
They say governments need to consider major shifts in policy, such as taxes, limiting sales of sweet food and drinks during school hours, or even stopping children from buying them below a certain age. A levy on added sugars would help meet the growing costs of sugar-related health problems and discourage consumption, they suggest.
The authors are pediatrics and obesity specialist Robert Lustig and health policy researchers Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis.
They point to a growing body of scientific evidence showing that fructose can trigger metabolic processes that lead to liver toxicity and a host of other chronic diseases. Sugar, they argue, is far more damaging than the weight gain its perceived "empty calories" add to consumers' diets.
At the levels consumed by most Americans, sugar changes metabolism, raises blood pressure, alters the signaling of hormones and causes significant damage to the liver, the researchers emphasize. These health hazards largely mirror the effects of drinking too much alcohol which, they point out, is the distillation of sugar.
"There are good calories and bad calories, just as there are good fats and bad fats, good amino acids and bad amino acids, good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates," said Lustig, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health program at UCSF. "But sugar is toxic beyond its calories."
Brindis, one of the report's authors and director of UCSF's Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, acknowledged that there are cultural and "celebratory" aspects driving an upswing in sugar consumption and that changing these patterns is very complicated.
The average U.S. adult consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, according to the American Heart Association. Already, 17% of U.S. children and teens are obese, and across the world the sugar intake has tripled in the past 50 years.
Other countries, including France, Greece and Denmark, levy soda taxes, and the concept is being considered in at least 20 U.S. cities and states.
"We're not talking prohibition," Schmidt said. "We're not advocating a major imposition of the government into people's lives. We're talking about gentle ways to make sugar consumption slightly less convenient, thereby moving people away from the concentrated dose. What we want is to actually increase people's choices by making foods that aren't loaded with sugar comparatively easier and cheaper to get."