The Health Effects of Sugar Are Exaggerated While More Harmful Ingredients are Ignored
Sugar has become the scapegoat for everything wrong with the health of Americans. Media, government authorities, and even some doctors blame sugar as the chief culprit - if not the only culprit - for epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, even cancer. The truth is far more complex, and understanding sugar's secondary role, vs. other dietary villains, will put you in a much better position to avoid the most dangerous foods.
The Worst Dangers in So-Called Sugary Foods
If you ask people to name sugar-laden foods, a typical list might include cookies, cakes, pies, pastries, ice cream, soda, and candy. Others might count the prepared foods that have added sugars, such as many condiments, fast foods, and frozen meals. If sugar is the chief culprit in the health consequences of these foods, you might expect that most of their calories would come from sugar.
In fact, a recent analysis found that only 21% (on average) of the calories in these foods come from sugar. This 2016 study in the prestigious medical journal BMJ Open looked at ultra-processed foods, defined as "industrial formulations which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product."
Yum. It turns out that Americans get almost 58% of their total calories from these ultra-processed chemistry experiments. "Foods" in this category include the dessert and snack foods listed above, as well as salty snacks, frozen and shelf stable meals, pizza, some cereals, sauces and gravies, ready-to-eat sandwiches, instant and canned soups, and French fries.
An accurate description for these concoctions is not "sugary foods," but "chemical laden-fatty-sugary ," or CFS foods for short.
Here are some examples of the secondary role that sugar plays in foods popularly labeled as "sugar":
- Breyers homemade vanilla ice cream: 37% of calories from sugar
- Chips Ahoy! reduced fat chocolate chip cookies: 29% of calories from sugar
- Reese's peanut butter cups: 40% of calories from sugar
- Typical cake-type doughnuts (plain, chocolate-coated, or frosted) per USDA database: 23.6% of calories from sugar