Be Well, Marsha 12/15/15

How sweet it isn’t

By Marsha Bonhart

I know it’s the holiday season, but I am not bringing glad tidings. I am not scolding, only offering information. As I write this article, I think of an old tune: “Sugar/ Oh honey, honey/ You are my candy girl/ And you got me wanting you.” The lyrics are obviously referring to a young man’s desire for an apparently delightful woman. But I can’t help but think how, according to the Food and Drug Administration, we take those words literally—every day. Sugar. Honey. And you got me wanting you.

For the first time, the US government is putting the hammer down on sugar and our addictive consumption of it. Nutritionists have been screaming for decades that sugar—and the amount we consume—is not only contributing to our nation’s obesity epidemic, but killing us insidiously.

The FDA is strongly suggesting ingesting no more than 12 and a half teaspoons a day, or no more than 10 percent of our daily calories. The agency even wants to change labeling to help Americans understand the difference between added sugar and sugar that naturally exists in some foods.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Dr. Frank Hu said, “there is a lot of hidden sugar in our food supply and it’s not just in sweets.” Hu is a member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard University. We understand the obvious sugary foods (we eat them anyway), but sugar is also hidden in the stuff that we love so very much—canned fruit, soups, wheat bread, yogurt, salad dressings, ketchup …

The FDA has a department that focuses on the safety of food and nutrition, directed by Susan Mayne. She says, “when you see a yogurt with pictures of blueberries and strawberries on the label there could be a teeny tiny amount of real fruit in there and an awful lot of added sugar, or lots of fruit and dairy and little added sugar, and the consumer can’t distinguish between the two.”

Nearly half of the added sugar in American diets comes from sweetened drinks—sodas, fruit juice, sweetened tea, coffee and sports drinks. This information comes from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, but over the years, my kids’ dentist has also issued warnings about these same beverages, along with concerns about sweetened cereals.

Here is a heads-up to parents and caregivers: clinical trials show that getting kids to cut back on sweetened drinks can help them lose weight. Some experts are saying the brain doesn’t register liquid calories the same way it registers calories in food. In fact, the “Well” section of The New York Times mentioned one major study showed obese children who cut back on sugar for just 10 days saw improvements in their blood pressure and cholesterol. The findings suggest calories created by sugar contribute heavily to Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases that are increasing dramatically in children.

Another finger is also being wagged. This one by the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Bio markers and Prevention. That writing is showing people who drink two or more sugar-sweetened soft drinks every week are 87 percent more likely to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The theory is the sugar in colas bumps up insulin, which is linked to pancreatic cancer cell growth.

The new sugar label requirements are being criticized, mostly from the food industry because those detractors say it’s all very confusing. A report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics revealed most of us overestimate the amount listed in the “added sugars” written on products. One of the authors of that study says our bodies can’t tell the difference between added and natural sugars and if people are concerned about their weight, they should count total calories. We know tallying calories is an essential part of maintaining good weight control, but we also need to know there are empty calories with no nutrition in added sugars. Natural sugars, however, contain fiber, protein and vitamins.

As we worry about weight gain, we also need to be reminded that research shows high-sugar diets can promote chronic disease like insulin resistance, high blood pressure and even cardiovascular disease like heart and stroke. According to Hu, adults who consumed about 25 percent of daily calories made up of sugar were three times more likely to die of heart disease than people who ate less than 10 percent of it as a daily intake. So, here is the chicken or the egg: is it the sugar that is harming our health or is it the weight gain that comes from the sugary drinks and added sugars that contribute to illnesses?

The World Health Organization wants to maintain a 10 percent cap on daily sugar content. That does not include what is found in fresh fruit, veggies or milk. The global health watchdog recommends everyone to limit sugar intake to 5 percent of how many calories we take in each day. The American Heart Association is stricter with its sugar requirements. They want women to have only 100 calories in added sugars daily—that’s six teaspoons, with men recommended  having no more than nine teaspoons and the FDA asking that kids between the ages of 1 and 3 years old have no more than 25 grams of added sugar each day.

So, how shall we dine? Honey, sugar, candy girl—we are still wanting you. But as it is with some relationships, let’s talk moderation.

Be well,


Marsha Bonhart is an assistant vice president of public relations and programs at Wilberforce University, the nation’s first private, historically black college. Reach her at

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