How the food industry misleads consumers on sugar

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sugar-coating-science-coverThe food industry uses misleading marketing and industry-supported interest groups to obscure the health consequences of added sugar in their products, according to a new report, Sugar-Coating Science: How the Food Industry Misleads Consumers on Sugar, from the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Companies are going out of their way to promote products with added sugar in them as healthier than they really are,” said Deborah Bailin, lead author. “In many cases, they’re adding sugar to otherwise healthy foods and misleading customers about it. It’s not just soda and snacks, either. Added sugar is in everything from bread to salad dressing and even frozen dinners.”

Medical researchers have linked sugar overconsumption to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension. Despite these dangers, companies advertise products with added sugar using healthy-sounding language. For instance, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios are marketed as “whole grain,” which they are, but the product also contains 10 grams of sugar—10 times the amount in General Mills’ regular Cheerios.

Since 1970, average daily U.S. sugar consumption has increased from 74.7 grams to 82.1 grams (20 teaspoons). That is more than double the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guideline recommendation of no more than 42 grams of sugar a day. The report documents that eating just a few sugar-added products during the day could easily cause someone to exceed the recommendation level.

The food industry spends nearly $7 billion annually advertising its products. About a quarter of its spending is directed at youth advertising and sugar-heavy products make up the bulk of that spending. GoGurt yogurt, for instance, contains large amounts of added sugar, but has been advertised as healthy because it is free of “high fructose corn syrup.” The report also tracks misleading marketing campaigns for sugar-added products that have been specifically directed at women, minorities and low-income consumers.

Food industry-supported interest groups also play a significant role in misinforming the public, the report finds. Court documents recently revealed that the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) paid Berman and Company to run a misleading ad campaign through the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit run by Berman and Company’s founder. The ads conveyed the message that all sugars—whether from corn, cane, and beets—are “natural” and pose no health concerns. This message is misleading, the report says, because it distracts people from the risks associated with over-consuming sugar in any form. In internal emails, CRA’s then-president Audrae Erickson counseled colleagues to deny that CRA was financing the campaign.

The report makes the following recommendations in order to hold the food industry and its interest groups accountable for their efforts to obscure the science on sugar and its detrimental health effects:

  • The media should publicly call out sugar interests’ misstatements.
  • Scientific experts should disclose all real or perceived conflicts of interest.
  • Investors and citizens should pressure companies to align their public messaging with science and to cease funding to trade and front groups that spread misinformation.
  • U.S. Congress should restore the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission to their full capacity to regulate marketing to children so that the agencies can regulate youth-targeted marketing.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should implement a strong rule requiring the labeling of added sugar in nutrition labels as the agency announced it intends to do.
  • Federal, state, and local health agencies should develop aggressive public information campaigns to emphasize the scientific evidence demonstrating sugar’s health impacts and counter the misinformation from sugar interests.

The report is being released at the Science, Democracy, and a Healthy Food Policy forum on integrating public health science into U.S. food policy, sponsored by Union of Concerned Scientists and the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

Are you swallowing sugar-coated science

1. Bailin D, Goldman G, Phartiyal P. Sugar-Coating Science: How the Food Industry Misleads Consumers on Sugar. Cambridge, Mass.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2014.

Investing in fruits, vegetables can save lives, reduce health care costs

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Increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables could save more than 100,000 lives and $17 billion in health care costs from heart disease each year in the United States, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

11 trillion reward - UCS reportThe report, The $11 Trillion Dollar Reward, explains that better federal agricultural policies, designed to encourage production of healthy food instead of processed junk foods, will help reap those benefits.

If Americans consumed just one additional serving of fruits or vegetables a day, the nation would save $5 billion in health care expenditures and prevent 30,301 heart disease and stroke deaths annually. And if Americans were to go a step further and eat a full 2.5 cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit daily, as recommended by federal dietary guidelines, it could prevent 127,261 deaths each year and save $17 billion in medical costs. The economic value of the lives saved from cardiovascular diseases is an astounding $11 trillion, according to the report.

The report researchers advocate for cost-effective policies that increase access to and reduce the cost of domestically grown fruits and vegetables for consumers, especially for low-income consumers who are hardest hit by cardiovascular disease and other diet-related illnesses. Low-income neighborhoods–where some 30 million Americans reside–are often far from grocery stores and other sources of fresh produce, hindering access.

Current federal agricultural policies channel taxpayer dollars into subsidies for commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, which are used as feed for livestock, biofuels and as processed food ingredients. These policies offer few incentives for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables–effectively discouraging production of the very foods federal dietary guidelines recommend.

A three-minute video produced by UCS summarizes how we can achieve an $11 trillion reward through forward-looking agricultural policies.

1. O’Hara JK. The $11 Trillion Reward: How Simple Dietary Changes Can Save Lives and Money, and How We Get There. Cambridge, Mass.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2013.

Physical activity recommendations for children

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Physical activity recommendations in early childhood should be a focus of future cardiovascular disease prevention efforts, according to a study of 3,000 children age 2-9 years from eight European countries.

The age and sex of the children are important factors in determining the right physical activity requirements. Boys age six years or younger need at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day, whereas boys age 6-9 years need at least 80 minutes. Girls in either age group need approximately 15 minutes less. Recommendations should also include 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity per day in all children.

Clinicians should avoid using generalized physical activity guidelines and evaluate children at risk of cardiovascular disease on a case-by-case basis, the researchers said.

1. Jiménez-Pavón D, Konstabel K, Bergman P, et al. Physical activity and clustered cardiovascular disease risk factors in young children: a cross-sectional study (the IDEFICS study). BMC Medicine 2013; 11: 172. (open access)
2. McMurray RG. Insights into physical activity and cardiovascular disease risk in young children: IDEFICS study. BMC Medicine 2013; 11: 173. (open access)

Leisure time exercise lengthens life expectancy, study finds

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Adults who participate in leisure time physical activity, even below recommended levels, are likely to reduce their risk of death, according to a review study that included 650,000 people over age 40 years.

Life expectancy could be increased by as much as 4.5 years, regardless of weight. Even obese people who were very active were found to live an average of 3.1 more years than inactive people of normal weight.

The results may help convince currently inactive people that a modest physical activity program may have health benefits, even if it does not result in weight loss, the study concludes.

1. Moore SC, Patel AV, Matthews CE, et al. Leisure time physical activity of moderate to vigorous intensity and mortality: a large pooled cohort analysis. PLoS Medicine 2011; 9(11): e1001335. (open access)

White rice linked to 11% rise in diabetes risk

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A study published in indicates that a higher consumption of white rice is associated with a significantly increased risk of type 2 diabetes, especially in Asian populations.

Each serving per day of white rice consumption increases the risk of diabetes by 11 percent, according to the study.

Rice provides food for more than half of the world’s population, especially those living in some of the most populous countries, such as China, India, and Japan. And white rice—which is produced through a series of mechanized processes including hulling and milling and has higher glycemic levels than whole grains—is the predominant type of rice consumed worldwide.

The high glycemic levels of white rice, in combination with dramatically decreased levels of physical activity and increased access to unhealthy foods, has led to a rise in obesity insulin resistance in Asian countries.

In addition, the study shows that even for Western populations with typically low intake levels, relatively high white rice consumption may still modestly increase risk of diabetes.

1. Hu EA, Pan A, Malik Va, Sun Q. White rice consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes: meta-analysis and systematic review. BMJ 2012; 344: e1454. (open access)

Family, school support key in teen physical activity

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Teens are less likely to engage in physical activity if they lack support and encouragement from family, school, and the community, according to a British study of adolescents age 16-18 years of Bangladeshi, Somali or Welsh descent.

Girls exercise less than boys because female physical activity is viewed as unimportant. Boys find barriers through lack of access to exercise resources, parental fear of injury and the belief that teens should be studying or working rather than playing. Although both boys and girls would like to increase their exercise frequency, girls tend to have a negative view of physical activity, while boys think positively about it.

“Interventions should focus on changing the attitudes of parents, communities and society toward activity,” the study concluded.

1. Brophy S, Crowley A, Mistry R. Recommendations to improve physical activity among teenagers: A qualitative study with ethnic minority and European teenagers. BMC Public Health 2011; 11: 412. (open access)

Vegetarian diet may protect against bowel disorder

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People who consume a vegetarian diet are one-third less likely to get diverticular disease than meat eaters, finds a study of more than 47,000 health conscious British adults. About 15,000 of the study participants reported being vegetarian.

Diverticular disease is a common bowel disorder that affects the colon and is thought to be caused by not consuming enough fiber. Typical symptoms include painful abdominal cramps, bloating, wind, constipation and diarrhea.

The study also found that study participants with a relatively high intake of dietary fiber (around 25 grams a day) had a lower risk of being admitted to hospital with or dying from diverticular disease compared with those who consumed less than 14 grams of fiber a day.

These findings lend support to public health recommendations that encourage the eating foods high in fiber such as wholegrain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables, the study researchers conclude.

1. Crowe FL, Appleby PN, Allen NE, Key TJ. Diet and risk of diverticular disease in Oxford cohort of European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC): prospective study of British vegetarians and non-vegetarians. BMJ 2011; 343: d4131. (open access)

Alcohol linked to cancer in eight countries in Western Europe

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Almost one in ten cancers in men and three percent of cancers in women in Western Europe are attributable to former and current alcohol drinking, according to a study conducted in France, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Greece, Germany and Denmark.

The study authors argue that a substantial proportion (40-98 percent) of the alcohol-attributable cancers occurred in individuals who drank more than the recommended guidelines on upper limits of two standard drinks a day in men and one standard drink a day in women. (A standard drink contains about 12 grams of alcohol and is equivalent to a 125 ml-glass of wine or a half-pint of beer.)

The study calculated that in 2008, current and former alcohol consumption by men was responsible for about 57,600 cases of cancer of the upper digestive tract, colorectum and liver in Denmark, Greece, Germany, Italy, Spain and Great Britain. Over half of these cases were caused by drinking more than two alcoholic drinks per day. Alcohol drinking by women in the eight countries caused about 21,500 cases of upper digestive tract, liver, colorectum and breast cancer, of which over 80 percent was due to consumption of more than one drink of beer, wine or spirits per day.

“Our data show that many cancer cases could have been avoided if alcohol consumption is limited to two alcoholic drinks per day in men and one alcoholic drink per day in women, which are the recommendations of many health organisations,” the study said. “And even more cancer cases would be prevented if people reduced their alcohol intake to below recommended guidelines or stopped drinking alcohol at all.”

1. Schütze M, Boeing H, Pischon T, et al. Alcohol attributable burden of incidence of cancer in eight European countries based on results from prospective cohort study. BMJ 2011; 342: d1584. (open access)

Obesity prevention in Brazil should focus on eating healthy and eating less

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Obesity prevention messages should not only focus on eating healthy, but also eating less food, finds a study from Brazil. According to the study, a high availability of healthy foods does not necessarily mean a low availability of unhealthy foods, i.e., people are not replacing the purchase of unhealthy foods with healthy foods. They, in fact, just eat more overall.

Among populations with low access to food, a higher diversity of available healthy foods was associated with a lower prevalence of underweight. As expected, households with higher incomes and education levels had greater dietary diversity.

1. Bezerra IN, Sichieri R. Household food diversity and nutritional status among adults in Brazil. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2011; 8: 22. (open access)

Physical inactivity, depression and heart disease-related death in older adults

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Research has indicated that depressed older individuals are at higher risk of dying than their counterparts without depression. In addition, physical inactivity accounted for a significant proportion (25 percent) of the risk of cardiovascular death due to depression in adults age 65 years and older, according to a 5,900-person U.S. study.

“These data suggest that preventive health and wellness programs in older adults, particularly those with depression, should focus on encouraging enrollment and continued participation in exercise programs,” the study concluded.

The study also added that positive financial incentives, health insurance rebates, transportation vouchers or health club memberships might enhance participation of older adults with depression in these programs and thereby reduce healthcare utilization and the risk of cardiovascular events.

1. Win S, Parakh K, Eze-Nliam CM, et al. Depressive symptoms, physical inactivity and risk of cardiovascular mortality in older adults: the Cardiovascular Health Study. Heart 2011; 97: 500-505. (open access)

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