There is no direct link between sugar and obesity.
That statement is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of science, which was reaffirmed in March by Europe’s food regulatory body.
The European Food Safety Authority found no scientific evidence to recommend a limit on the amount of sugar people should consume and stated: “Available data do not allow the setting of a Tolerable Upper Level for total or added sugars, neither an Adequate Intake nor a Reference Intake range.”
This European recommendation is consistent with a major scientific review in the United States, too.
A 2002 National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine report stated scientific evidence did not justify setting an upper level for sugars intake and found “no clear and consistent association between increased intakes of added sugars and [body mass index].”
Europe’s recent report is particularly timely as the U.S. is now reviewing its dietary guidelines, which dictate what foods can be served in federally-funded programs such as school lunches.
The Dietary Guidelines committee charged with the review of science from the past 5 years and the next draft of these guidelines is coming under increased pressure to set limits on sugars in the name of fighting obesity. This proposed cap would be so restrictive it would target many everyday foods, such as a cup of yogurt, a carton of chocolate milk, or an unbuttered piece of toast with jelly.
“Obesity is a problem that America must address,” said Andy Briscoe, president and CEO of the Sugar Association, “but dietary guidelines need to be the result of sound science and common sense, not emotion or someone’s opinion.”
Europe, he said, should be commended for putting science first. Briscoe is hopeful U.S. officials will follow this same model for Dietary Guidelines and nutrition policy efforts.
Briscoe also pointed to sugar consumption over the past decade as proof that sugar is not the culprit in the country’s obesity epidemic. Per capita caloric sweetener consumption is down nearly 10 percent over the past 10 years, according to the USDA, yet obesity rates have risen.
“Clearly, sugar is not the problem. It’s about eating in moderation to control caloric intake and exercising daily,” he concluded. “If anything, adding a few calories of all-natural sugar has proven to boost consumption of essential vitamins and minerals by making healthy foods taste a bit better.”
The state of Connecticut learned after banning sweetened flavored milk from state schools, there was a 60 percent reduction in consumption of milk, a primary source of calcium.
And Briscoe fears such unintended consequences could become commonplace if misguided mandates are created to restrict added sugars.
For example, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans notes, “Sugars can improve the palatability of foods and beverages that otherwise might not be consumed…the consumption of … presweetened cereals is positively associated with children’s and adolescents’ nutrient intake.”
The director of sports nutrition at the University of California Davis summed things up in a September letter to the Wall Street Journal. “’ ‘Just say no won't get us a slimmer and healthier America,” she wrote. “Instead, I suggest…promoting physical activity.” The Sugar Association agrees. Physical activity burns calories. And regular daily exercise not only burns calories, it also improves cardiovascular health.