by Marion Nestle
Aug 25 2009

American Heart Association: Eat (a lot!) less sugar.

At last, the American Heart Association (AHA) has done something useful.  It advises eating less sugar.  Americans eat way too much, it says, a whopping 22 teaspoons a day on average.  Let’s work this out.  A teaspoon is 4 grams.  A gram is 4 calories.  So the 275 calories in that default 20-ounce soda you picked up from a vending machine come from nearly 17 teaspoons of sugar – close to the average right there.  If you have trouble maintaining weight, soft drinks are an obvious candidate for “eat less” advice.  Neither the Wall Street Journal (in which I am quoted) nor the New York Times say much about how soft drink manufacturers are reacting to this recommendation, but it isn’t hard to guess.

Here, for example, is what the industry-sponsored American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has to say:

The study targets added sugars as the main culprit of dietary excess, but since “U.S. labels on packaged foods do not distinguish between naturally occurring or added sugars,” it is difficult to tell the difference. However, “our bodies can’t tell the difference either,” says ACSH’s Jeff Stier. “Natural and added sugars are nutritionally the same. Added sugar causes obesity as much as the orange juice promoted by the American Heart Association causes obesity [e-mail newsletter, August 25, 2009].

Smart Start

This is the first time the AHA has seriously weighed in on sugar.  I find this especially interesting because the AHA has a long history of endorsing sugary cereals (as I discuss in Food Politics and also in What to Eat).  In this example, the AHA’s endorsement is in the lower left corner.  This product has sugars of one kind or another listed 9 times in the ingredient list.

The AHA gets paid for such endorsements.  Let’s hope the new recommendation encourages the AHA to stop doing this.

Update August 27: I really don’t know what to say about the ACSH’s Jeff Stier.  he is acting more like the Center for Consumer Freedom’s Rick Berman every day.   Today’s e-mail newsletter from ACSH contains this statement:

In her blog in The Atlantic, NYU Professor of Nutrition Dr. Marion Nestle has fallen into the habit of suggesting that ACSH is incapable of objective analysis of public health concerns because we are, in her distorted view, “thoroughly industry-sponsored.”

ACSH’s Jeff Stier wrote to her editors: “Like many of the country’s top non-profits, Dr. Nestle’s NYU included, we accept corporate donations, with no strings attached. But we also receive significant support from individuals and foundations. Her misleading description of us suggests that we represent industry. We do not. We are advised by some of the nation’s leading scientists and represent consumers.

“By way of this email, I ask for a conspicuous and fair correction. We are happy to engage on the issues Dr. Nestle writes about, but her attacks on us are below someone of her stature. We’d prefer an informed and enlightening discussion of the issues, not underhanded and unfounded attacks on credibility.”

“Apparently, Dr. Nestle believes that your opinions are irrelevant, since they diverge from her ideological agenda,” says Stier. “We represent you, consumers, who want science rather than ideology informing public health decisionmaking. Does she really think that consumers are so monolithic that they either agree with her or are put up to it by some sinister entity?”

Readers: Does anyone know what is going on with this group?  It sounds so much like the Center for Consumer Freedom that I can’t help but wonder.

  • Jodie

    If our bodies can’t tell the difference between added sugars and natural sugars…is it bad that I am eating lots of fruit? That’s adding a lot of sugar to my diet, right?

  • I would love to see these authoritative and government agencies giving us dietary advice that is not funded or influenced in any ways by the food industry and it’s money. Not likely to happen, but I can dream, right?

  • Cody

    Even though our bodies are not be able to tell the difference between added and natural sugars at a metabolic level, we can tell the difference as consumers in the way these products influence our behavior. Eating an orange is a more healthy snack than drinking soda or a candy bar, and mentality of eating natural foods like oranges versus couch-potato food like Lays chips is a big factor. The orange doesn’t have the same level of branding or advertising. The Lays are designed to induce food-craving and brand-recognition so that we get hungry when we respond to the commercials.

  • DR

    Perhaps the days of the $5 can of Coke are upon us

  • Oranges have FIBER. Soda doesn’t Therefore sugar in the orange is digested more slowly as the fiber is present. There are also other things in the orange that are good for you, such as vitamins, minerals and likely other benefits we have yet to discover. That’s the difference!

  • Matt

    Nutritionally, added sugars and “natural” sugars are the same. “Added” sugars are natural, they come from sugar cane, or from beets. Why should our bodies care whether sugar comes from sugar cane, beets, or an apple? The problem lies in the packaging. When you eat dried fruit, say a box of raisins, you’re getting 30 grams of sugar (7.5 teaspoons … or 2.5 tablespoons) of sugar. You are not full after this. If you eat a large banana, you also get about 30 grams of sugar, but you also took in a bit more fiber, some more vitamins, some water bound to the solid food, and you feel more full. Thus, it’s a little healthier. Not that much healthier, you’re still getting all that sugar and should make choices that accomodate that sugar load by not combining the banana with, say, a glass of orange juice, bowl of cereal topped with skim milk like many americans do. That is just way too much sugar at one time, even if the cereal is a “low sugar” variety, as the “healthy whole grain” carbohydrate in the cereal is metabolized the same way as the sugar in the banana.

  • Janet Camp

    When people drink a large (often VERY large) glass of orange juice, they see it as a healthy choice, but they simply don’t realize how many oranges it took to make that amount of juice and, therefore, how much sugar is in that “healthy” drink.

    East the orange, skip the juice. I am always appalled at the huge section of the health food store devoted to juice; organic or not, juice is loaded with sugar.

    On another note, I have always been skeptical of any organization, no matter how seemingly benign, that takes ANY money from any industry that promotes highly advertised packaged food. It takes about five minutes, total, to make oatmeal. I eat it with a few blueberries or banana slices and some non-fat yogurt and a couple walnuts–no sugar. You can adapt to this in about a week and break the “craving-cycle” the manufacturers and advertisers have so carefully cultivated. It’s way-cheap, too, to buy bulk oatmeal (and other grains) in bulk and make it yourself. Refrigerate some and just heat it in the microwave the next few days–not half bad! You can even have a tsp. of sugar if that’s all or most of the sugar you eat that day.

  • susanne

    i have found it easy as well to adapt to less sugar. i eat plain yogurt with fruit in it. if it is bananas or peaches, i do not add any sugar. with more tart fruits like raspberries and blackberries, i add 1tsp or so of raw sugar, and it is plenty sweet. after eating kashi granola bars, i find the nature valley and quaker granola bars to taste sickeningly sweet. homemade granola bars are also delicious and easy to make and you can easily control the amount of added sugar. dried fruit works very well as a sweetener in them.

  • Jenny

    I think there’s a slight mistake. It’s my understanding 1 tsp sugar = 4 grams = 4 carbohydrates = 15 calories. So a cola has 19 tsp. sugar, not 70. That’s still a lot considering all the other foods with both naturally occuring and added sugar. Finally AHA. Hopefully other health agencies follow suit!

  • I used to work for AHA (granted, it was in the HR dept), and I can say without hesitation that the main branch of the organization is hyperfocused on fundraising and raising their own visibility. That’s why they partner with Subway on every Heart Walk that they do, and that’s why they promote any food that fits within their guidelines – the advertiser is paying them to use their logo.

    That said, the science branch of the AHA does set those guidelines with the best of intentions, and they are trying to gently encourage Americans to eat better and think about what they are eating. I think that it is a great thing that they are raising their standards, because it will make the number of products that are eligible to receive their label much more selective, thus being a better guide to those who use such labels to guide their purchases.

  • Marion

    @Jenny, Lisa, and all others who caught this: you are quite right and the error is already corrected. Thanks so much for the sharp eyes.

  • Cathy Richards

    Things are similar here in Canada. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada didn’t have any warnings about trans fats for years (not to mention sugar). It wasn’t until more than a year after Community Nutritionists had been working with schools to get healthier choices — including getting rid of trans — and H&S came to a couple of our provincial meetings, that H&S started looking at trans. How did they do this? By running advertisments of how they were helping to get trans fats out of schools!! They actually took the credit for what we had been working so hard to do.

    Anyway, it’s great they’re on board now, but for a non-profit NGO it’s a little strange that government moves faster than them. I think it is a funding issue since they are in a business relationship with food companies and restaurants. It’s also that their focus has been on identifying and treating heart disease, not on preventing it.

  • Cathy Richards

    I’ll also add that in 2006 a PMS specialist suggested I try a no added sugar diet. I never ate a lot (I thought). Just a yogurt and a couple squares of chocolate every day, and sometimes cake. But avoiding sugar has been one of the best things I’ve done for my moods, attention, etc. It took about 2 weeks to stop thinking about it all the time, but nowI can be hungry for hours now, instead of minutes, without getting irritable or losing concentration or getting dizzy. I’m very careful — even with whole fruit I include nuts or cheese to help keep my blood sugars level. Now my yogurt is plain, full fat, with added fruit, and my chocolate is 85% cocoa.

    Sugar, and the low fat obsession that helped contribute to monstrous sugar appetites, has got to be a large part of why we’re getting so fat. It’s not just the calories, it’s the urgency of the rebound hunger that sugar creates.

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  • I grew up with a grandmother and great-aunt who never put sugar in anything. Cookies, muffins, you name it. Maybe a tad of honey and yogurt here and there but that’s it. My grandmother taught me to love things with less sugar. Take for example, her bundt cakes that she just made, they are divine, she used raw honey instead of sugar:

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  • Agnieszka

    ACSH was founded in 1978 by Drs. Elizabeth Whelan and Frederick Stare. Stare was an industry-funded professor of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, where he was involved in a decades-long money laundering scheme and concealed tobacco industry funding for members of his department who denied links between tobacco use and disease. Stare’s support for the sugar industry earned him the nickname “The Sugar King.” Check out more on: