UCSF researchers call for sugar to be regulated

Sugar should be controlled like alcohol and tobacco to protect public health, according to a team of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

Robert Lustig, MD; Laura Schmidt, PhD, MSW, MPH; and Claire Brindis, DPH; and colleagues at UCSF maintain that sugar is fueling a global obesity pandemic, contributing to 35 million deaths annually worldwide from noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer (Nature, February 2, 2012).

They also argue that sugar's potential for abuse, coupled with its toxicity and pervasiveness in the Western diet, make it a primary culprit of this worldwide health crisis, according to a UCSF news story.

Worldwide consumption of sugar has tripled during the past 50 years and is viewed as a key cause of the obesity epidemic, according to the article. But obesity may just be a marker for the damage caused by the toxic effects of too much sugar, the researchers contend.

"As long as the public thinks that sugar is just 'empty calories,' we have no chance in solving this," said Dr. Lustig, a professor of pediatrics in the division of endocrinology at the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital, in the news story. "There are good calories and bad calories, just as there are good fats and bad fats. But sugar is toxic beyond its calories."

Many of the interventions that have reduced alcohol and tobacco consumption can be models for addressing the sugar problem, such as levying special sales taxes, controlling access, and tightening licensing requirements on vending machines and snack bars that sell high-sugar products in schools and workplaces, the researchers noted.

"We're not talking prohibition," Schmidt said. "We're talking about gentle ways to make sugar consumption slightly less convenient, thereby moving people away from the concentrated dose."

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