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Why Sugar? Why Now?

Americans are consuming unprecedented amounts of dietary sugars in the form of sugary drinks and packaged/processed foods – far more than we did just a few decades ago. A growing body of new science suggests that all this sugar isn’t just making us fat; it may also be making us sick.

The science of sugar and health is in the midst of a paradigm shift. We previously assumed that sugar was just “empty calories” – too much led to weight gain, but the problems pretty much stopped there. What’s different now is that scientists are uncovering more ways that excessive amounts of sugar could be directly impacting our health.1,2 These health impacts are apparent across a range of chronic diseases that lead to premature death, such as heart disease, diabetes and liver disease.

We believe the public needs and deserves to be informed. To achieve this, we created SugarScience.org as a one-of-a-kind, go-to resource for people to access the latest science on this dynamic, timely and important area of medical research. SugarScience.org is neither pro-sugar nor anti-sugar. What we are is enthusiastically pro-health. With that perspective, our goal is to increase awareness and understanding.

SugarScience.org is based at the nation’s leading university exclusively focused on health and includes a multidisciplinary team of researchers working on matters critical to the health of real people. We do this work because we want to help save lives and improve peoples’ well-being. Naturally, we get frustrated when we see how little of what we are learning in our labs, clinical trials and surveys makes its way to the public, and how long it takes for important new research findings to make a difference in the lives of real people. And it is especially disappointing when new scientific findings are distorted or misinterpreted.

To help overcome the reality that so much of what scientists know stays locked up in “the ivory tower,” SugarScience.org supports a direct dialogue between the public and scientists working in an area critical to health. This allows us to share knowledge directly with you, and for you to ask questions and provide feedback. We’re exploring ways to convey often complex science to make it clear, meaningful and accessible, and to provide you with take-home materials in the SugarScience resource kit that are reliable, engaging and useful to you and your community. Your questions and input also help us, as scientists, understand how we can make our research more responsive and relevant to you and your community.

People often ask why it seems that, these days, sugar is being singled out and put under the microscope. It's generally understood that there is a connection between the rising rates of sugar consumption and obesity. But what most people don’t seem to be aware of, and what is more troubling, is the new science linking overconsumption of sugar to rising rates of serious chronic diseases such as Type II diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).3,4 In the past, we seldom saw Type II diabetes in children, and only a few decades ago we didn’t even have a diagnosis for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Today, 31 percent of adults and 13 percent of kids suffer from NAFLD.4,5,6

We all love sugar; and that includes me and my family. But our current food environment – in which the vast majority of packaged foods have added sugar – makes it too easy to have too much. Now, more than ever, we need to have an honest, informed conversation about how much added sugar we’re consuming, and how this is affecting our health.

So, why sugar and why now? Because we owe it to you, and to our kids, to spread the word and share what scientists know about this important health issue.

  • [1]Lustig, R.H., Schmidt, L.A., & Brindis, C.D. (2012). The toxic truth about sugar. Nature , 487(5), 27-29. doi:10.1038/482027a
  • [2]Ng, S.W., Slining, M.M., & Popkin, B.M. (2012). Use of caloric and noncaloric sweeteners in US consumer packaged foods, 2005-2009. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics , 112(11), 1828-1834.e1821-1826.
  • [3]Schwimmer, J.B., Deutsch, R., Kahen, T., Lavine, J.E., Stanley, C., & Behling, C. (2006, October 1). Prevalence of Fatty Liver in Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics , 118(4), 1388-1393. doi:10.1542/peds.2006-1212. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/118/4/1388.long
  • [4]Browning, J.D., Szczepaniak, L.S., Dobbins, R., Nuremberg, P., Horton, J.D., Cohen, J.C., & Hobbs, H.H. (2004, November 24). Prevalence of hepatic steatosis in an urban population in the United States: Impact of ethnicity. Hepatology , 40(6), 1387-1395. doi:10.1002/hep.20466. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hep.20466/full
  • [5]Lindbäck, S.M., Gabbert, C., Johnson, B.L., Smorodinsky, E., Sirlin, C.B., Garcia, N., & Schwimmer, J.B. (2010). Pediatric Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: A Comprehensive Review. Advances in Pediatrics , 57(1), 85-140. doi:10.1016/j.yapd.2010.08.006

non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

(also called NAFLD) Fatty liver that is not caused by drinking too much alcohol. Too much alcohol drinking can cause fatty liver diseases and steatohepatitis. NAFLD happens to people who are overweight, have diabetes, high cholesterol or high triglycerides in their blood. Rapid changes in weight can also cause NAFLD. It can happen to even those without any of the things listed above. It is common, up to 31% of adults in the United States have NAFLD.

SugarScience Glossary

non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

(also called NAFLD) Fatty liver that is not caused by drinking too much alcohol. Too much alcohol drinking can cause fatty liver diseases and steatohepatitis. NAFLD happens to people who are overweight, have diabetes, high cholesterol or high triglycerides in their blood. Rapid changes in weight can also cause NAFLD. It can happen to even those without any of the things listed above. It is common, up to 31% of adults in the United States have NAFLD.

SugarScience Glossary

Added sugar

Any sugar added in preparation of foods, either at the table, in the kitchen or in the processing plant. This may include sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and others.

SugarScience Glossary

Sugary drinks

Means the same as sugar-sweetened beverages or liquid sugars.

SugarScience Glossary

Heart disease

A broad term for a group of chronic diseases of the heart, these diseases include problems with blood supply to heart muscle, problems with heart valves and the electrical system of the heart. Another term you will see used to mean the same thing is cardiovascular disease.

SugarScience Glossary

Liver disease

A broad term meaning any bodily process in which the liver is injured or does not work as it is supposed to. In this website we focus on liver diseases in which the diet hurts the liver

SugarScience Glossary

Diabetes mellitus

Usually shortened to just diabetes. Sometimes called sugar diabetes. Look at Type 1 Diabetes and Type 2 Diabetes for more information

SugarScience Glossary

Chronic diseases

Diseases which last months or years, do not go away on their own, and are usually managed and not cured. For the first time in history diseases that are not caused by infection (non-communicable diseases) are causing more injury and death worldwide than are those caused by infection. In the US this has been true for decades but the rest of the world is catching up as our diet and lifestyle are becoming more common globally.

SugarScience Glossary

Fatty liver

An abnormal condition in which too much fat is stored in the liver. "Too much fat" means more than one tenth of the liver is made of fat.

SugarScience Glossary

Sugars

Sugars are chemicals made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen found which taste sweet and are found in food. They are an important part of what we eat and drink and of our bodies. On this site, sugar is used to mean simple sugars (monosaccharides) like fructose or glucose, and disaccharides like table sugar (sucrose). Sucrose is two simple sugars stuck together for example (see Table sugar). Sugars are a type of carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are energy sources for our bodies Sugars enter the blood stream very quickly after being eaten.

SugarScience Glossary

Fat

One of the three major groups of nutrients we eat. Much of this website is related to problems associated with too much fat storage in the body. Each gram of fat produces 9 calories of energy if burned by the body as fuel. Fat can be stored in many places in the body. We generally think of fat as under the skin (subcutaneous), but the fat that may be most damaging to us is the fat stored in the liver and around the organs of the abdomen (intrahepatic and visceral or abdominal or intra-abdominal)

SugarScience Glossary

SugarScience is the authoritative source for evidence-based, scientific information about sugar and its impact on health.

Laura A. Schmidt, PhD, MSW, MPH

Laura A. Schmidt, PhD, MSW, MPH, is a professor in the UCSF School of Medicine. She has dedicated her career to intervening on the social determinants of health and to understanding how lifestyle risk factors, such as alcohol and poor diet, influence chronic disease and health inequality.

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