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

Citation:
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.

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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.

Citation:
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.

Citation:
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)

New report on urbanization and heart disease

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The World Heart Federation has released a new report, Urbanization and Cardiovascular Disease: Raising Heart-healthy Children in Today’s Cities, which shows how urban life impacts heart-healthy behavior.

Although urbanization brings with it many opportunities—such as employment choices, healthcare, educational prospects, social connections and political mobilization—city life inherently comes with obstacles to adopting heart-healthy behaviors, according to the report.

For example, foods high in salt, sugar and fats are often more cheaply and readily available than fresh fruits and vegetables in urban settings. Children are particularly vulnerable to the negative health aspects associated with city life, as they have the least independence from, and are most manipulated by, their living environment. In addition, unplanned urbanization is accompanied by limitations on space for physical activity including lack of planning, crime, and heavy and dangerous traffic.

Heart disease is not just an issue of lifestyle and individual behavior choices, it is the environment around such diseases that have a major impact, the report emphasizes.

The report presents several case studies showing that informed action by governments and key stakeholders who take a whole-of-society approach can dramatically reduce the level of cardiovascular disease risk.

Download the full report or the executive summary here: www.worldheart.org/urbanization.

Citation:
1. Smith, S. et al. Urbanization and Cardiovascular Disease: Raising Heart-healthy Children in Today’s Cities. Geneva: World Heart Federation, 2012.

Food fried in olive or sunflower oil is not linked to heart disease

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Eating food fried in olive or sunflower oil is not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or death, according to a study of more than 40,000 adults aged 29-69 years in Spain.

The benefits of olive or sunflower oil can be attributed to the fact that they are less prone to deteriorating during frying, compared to other oils.
The oil used for frying deteriorates, especially when reused, through oxidation and hydrogenation, leading to a loss of unsaturated fats and an increase in trans fats. When food is fried it loses water and absorbs this degredated oil, increasing its energy density.

The study researchers pointed out that these results are directly applicable only to other Mediterranean countries with frying methods similar to those in Spain. For example, oil (mainly olive and sunflower) rather than solid fat is used for frying in Spain. And these oils are not likely to be reused multiple times for foods eaten at home. Finally, consumption of fried snacks high in salt is fairly low in Spain, whereas in other countries such as the United States they provide an important percentage of energy intake.

“Frying with other types of fats, reusing oils several times, or consuming fried snacks high in salt may still be harmful,” the study concluded.

Citation:
1. Guallar-Castillón P, Rodríguez-Artalejo F, Lopez-Garcia E, et al. Consumption of fried foods and risk of coronary heart disease: Spanish cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study. BMJ 2012; 344: published 24 Jan 2012. (open access)

Adults in southern China at high risk of metabolic syndrome

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A study indicates that close to eight percent of adults in Guangdong, China, have the metabolic syndrome. The metabolic syndrome is the constellation of cardiovascular risk factors including abdominal obesity, raised blood-sugar and high cholesterol. The metabolic syndrome is known to increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease and subsequent death.

The results of the study translate to a total of about four million adults age 20 years and older with the metabolic syndrome in this Chinese province of 85 million residents. More than 60 percent were found to have at least one individual component of the metabolic syndrome. Urban residence were more likely to have the syndrome than the rural population (close to 11 percent compared to four percent).

As China continues to be the fastest economic development in the world, it is expected to further increase its rate of modernization and urbanization–translating to more people consuming energy-dense diets and living increasingly sedentary lifestyles. The prevalence of the metabolic syndrome and related cardiovascular disease is therefore expected to increase enormously, according to the study.

“Urgent public health actions are needed to control this observed worsening situation in China,” the study concludes.

Citation:
1. Lao XQ, Zhang YH, Wong MCS, et al. The prevalence of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular risk factors in adults in southern China. BMC Public Health 2012; 12: 64. (open access)

Mexico study: Heart disease risk determined by quality of fat

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Quality, rather than quantity of fat, is the determinant of heart disease risk, according to a study conducted in Mexico. The study found that although fat intake among three-quarters of Mexicans fell within World Health Organization recommendations, their saturated fat and trans fat intake exceeded healthy diet recommendations–placing them at higher risk for heart disease.

Around 60 percent of Mexicans surveyed had a high intake of saturated fats and a low intake of polyunsaturated fats, which help reduce the risk of heart disease and promote cardiovascular health.

“Public policies should be enacted to reduce the intake of saturated fats by improving the quality of baking lard and promoting the consumption of defatted milk,” the study recommended. These two foods are among the main sources of saturated fats in the Mexican diet.

In addition, consumption of foods rich in n-3 and n-6 fatty acids (such as fish and nuts) are very low in the typical Mexican diet; thus, alternatives like promoting a larger consumption of canola or soy bean oils or addition of n-3 fatty acids to cooking oils from other sources must be considered, the study concluded.

Citation:
1. Ramírez-Silva I, Villalpando S, Moreno-Saracho JE, Bernal-Medina D. Fatty acids intake in the Mexican population. Results of the National Nutrition Survey 2006. Nutrition & Metabolism 2011; 8: 33. (open access)

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