Sugar: Generally Recognized As Safe?

Kelly Jamieson Thomas

We all are all cognizant that added dietary sugars aren’t good for us. How little added sugar is too much? And, how may low levels of added sugars in our diet affect our long term health? This August, both Nature Communications and National Geographic highlighted the negative effects of sugar consumption through two different approaches, bringing the sweet toxin into the spotlight. In National Geographic’s article “Sugar Love“, author Rich Cohen loosely maps the history of how added sugar and subsequently high fructose corn sugar (HFCS) found its way into our diet over the past 10,000 years. He highlights Haven Emerson’s observation that deaths from diabetes between 1900-1920 spiked with sugar consumption, and John Yudkin’s experiments demonstrate that added dietary sugar in mice and animals leads to increased levels of fat and insulin in the blood. Both of these factors are well known risks for heart disease and diabetes. Unfortunately, the war on saturated fat has historically overshadowed that on sugar, and, while fat comprises a smaller portion of the American diet than 20 years ago, added dietary sugar in the diet (primarily HFCS) has increased.


In an article published in Nature Communications entitled, “Human-relevant levels of added sugar consumption increase female mortality and lower male fitness in mice“, the authors Ruff et al. demonstrate the deleterious effects of low levels of added sugar (given as a HFCS mimetic) on mice, suggesting that the current standards, which we currently regard as acceptable levels of added sugar in our food, is harmful. The authors utilize Organismal Performance Assays to prove that low levels of added sugar in the mouse diet result in harmful clinical defects such as increased mortality, decreased litter size, decreased glucose clearance, and increased fasting cholesterol. These findings are significant because they represent the lowest level of sugar consumption shown to adversely affect mammalian health.


Over the past few decades, we’ve seen a dramatic 100% increase in diabetes and obesity incidence. In the National Geographic article, Cohen quotes Richard Johnson, a nephrologist at the University of Colorado Denver. Johnson asks, “Why is it that one-third of adults [worldwide] have high blood pressure, when in 1900 only 5 percent had high blood pressure?” He continues, “Why did 153 million people have diabetes in 1980, and now we’re up to 347 million? Why are more and more Americans obese? Sugar, we believe, is one of the culprits, if not the major culprit.” Cohen has a point. Consumption of added sugar, primarily in the form of HFCS, is becoming more commonly recognized as a major contributor to the onset of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome, characterized by factors including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels, is a major contributor to all three maladies Cohen questions–high blood pressure (which contributes to heart disease), diabetes and obesity.


Currently, both sucrose and high fructose corn syrup are both listed as food additives in the “Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS)” list provided by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This means that companies who produce processed foods, which include any food in a can, bag or box, can add copious amounts of either to the “food” we are consuming. The two articles cited here represent a fraction of the literature supporting the negative health effects on added dietary sugar consumption. IT’S TIME to reset the baseline to zero added sugar.