It's addictive and can lead to serious chronic disease, so why shouldn't sugar be regulated by the government just like those other addictive, unhealthy substances, tobacco and alcohol?
That's the argument a team of health researchers from University of California, San Francisco, put forth in a report in the February issue of the journal Nature.
Robert Lustig, M.D., and professors Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis, contend that it's simplistic to dismiss sugar as merely "empty calories" that make people fat. Those so-called empty calories have serious health consequences, they write.
"Sugar changes metabolism, raises blood pressure, critically alters the signaling of hormones and causes significant damage to the liver," effects that largely mirror the effects of drinking too much alcohol, the researchers point out in a prepared statement. "A little is not a problem, but a lot kills....slowly."
Lustig, a professor of pediatrics who specializes in childhood obesity, calls sugar "toxic beyond its calories."
The researchers support taxing sugary foods, like soda and candy, and controlling sales to kids under 17. They propose putting an age limit on those allowed to purchase drinks with added sugar and creating laws to restrict the access of children to convenience stores after school.
Schmidt, a health policy expert, wrote for CNN that:
Many of the health hazards of drinking too much alcohol, such as high blood pressure and fatty liver, are the same as those for eating too much sugar. Alcohol, after all, is simply the distillation of sugar. Where does vodka come from? Sugar.
The authors also note that the addictive craving for sugar -- and the resulting sugar-high -- is similar to the effect of drugs on the brain, which is why it's so hard for Americans to cut back on our desire for sweets.
Americans consume 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, according to the American Heart Association, and teenagers consume even more -- 34 teaspoons a day. This then contributes to obesity, which is linked to chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
The UCSF researchers say they're not asking for sugar to be banned. "We're talking about gentle ways to make sugar consumption slightly less convenient, thereby moving people away from the concentrated dose," explains Schmidt.
"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."
Other countries, including France, Greece and Denmark, have levied an extra tax on sodas, and a soda tax is being considered in at least 20 U.S. cites, reports Time magazine.
Having to flash an ID in order to buy a Kit Kat or a Coke seems a bit much, but maybe a soda tax isn't so crazy.
As Lustig pointed out in a popular 2009 lecture, "Sugar: The Bitter Truth," that was posted on YouTube, our love for sugar has some not-so-sweet health consequences.
In other health news:
Green tea -- the secret to a healthy old age? Older adults who regularly drink green tea may stay more agile and independent, according to a Japanese study that covered thousands of people. The new study, which followed 14,000 adults age 65 and older for three years, found that those who drank the most green tea were the least likely to develop "functional disability," or problems with daily activities or basic needs, such as dressing or bathing.
Warfarin and aspirin are similar in preventing deaths and strokes. In the largest and longest head-to-head comparison of two anti-clotting medications, warfarin and aspirin were similar in preventing deaths and strokes in heart failure patients with normal heart rhythm, according to new research presented at the American Stroke Association's international conference. While there were more benefits from warfarin in patients followed for four years or more, warfarin also increased the risk of more bleeding. "There is no compelling reason to use warfarin, especially considering the bleeding risk," said the study's lead author.
Want to cut prescription errors in hospitals? Use a computer. One in seven hospital patients suffers some form of error in care and a third of those has to do with prescription errors. But a new study shows those errors drop by a whopping 60 percent if prescription orders are entered on a computer.