The American Heart Association is sounding the alarm about the effect refined sugar is having on health, and the FDA is committed to food labels that include added sugars — all in an effort to curb intake. It's a response to the American diet, which is rich in refined sugar and excess calories.
What Is Refined Sugar?
Refined sugar is the sweetener health experts refer to when they warn against the dangers of too much added sugar in diets. It is extracted from sugar beets or sugar cane and processed to become granules, or what you know as table sugar or sucrose.
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Fructose is the naturally occurring sugar found in fruits and vegetables. It becomes a refined or added sugar when turned into a syrup, like high fructose corn syrup. Food manufacturers use refined sugars to make processed food taste better and last longer, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Sugar, whether it's refined or naturally occurring, is a simple carbohydrate, meaning the body breaks it down quickly and uses it as fuel. An important difference between refined and natural, however, is the nutritional value of the whole food, as well as how the body absorbs it. Fructose from fruits or vegetables has the added benefits of fiber, vitamins and minerals. But refined sugar, which is also considered a refined carbohydrate, is a carb stripped of any nutritional value.
Unfortunately, it's become the type of sugar that people overeat most often. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. This is way more than the American Heart Association's recommended intake of 9 teaspoons a day for men and 6 teaspoons a day for women.
Read more: How Refined Carbs Are Worse Than Other Carbs
Refined Sugar Dangers
Americans are not only exceeding the daily recommended intake of sugar, they're doing it on top of diets filled with highly processed foods like bread, chips and cereal. A March 2016 BMJ Open blog post points out that highly processed foods make up half of all calories consumed in the U.S. diet and account for 90 percent of all added sugar intake.
In a small study of 20 weight-stable adults published in July 2019 in the journal Cell Metabolism, researchers found that the participants who regularly ate overly processed food consumed an extra 500 calories a day and gained 2 pounds a week.
When a large quantity of sugar enters the human body, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the pancreas has a hard time keeping up — a disruption that can lead to weight gain. When a person eats sugar, the body turns it into glucose that enters the bloodstream.
When too much blood sugar is detected, the pancreas secretes more of the hormone insulin, whose job it is to move the sugar into cells or the liver to be used as energy. When there's too much glucose, the liver sends the excess to fat cells to be stored as body fat.
Read more: How Much Sugar Daily Is Safe If You Have Diabetes
Other Health Risks
When insulin can't keep up with the amount of sugar present and stops doing its job, it's called insulin resistance. The CDC says it not only causes weight gain, but it can also lead to Type 2 diabetes, which can have devastating effects on the body.
The American Heart Association says adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to die from heart disease than those without it. Insulin resistance is associated with a lipid disorder called diabetic dyslipidemia, which leads to high cholesterol levels.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “Statement on New Guidance for the Declaration of Added Sugars on Food Labels for Single-Ingredient Sugars and Syrups and Certain Cranberry Products”
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Chapter 2. Current Eating Patterns in the United States"
- American Medical Association: "Why Added-Sugar Nutrition Labeling Could Save Lives, Money"
- Mayo Clinic: ”Added Sugars: Don't Get Sabotaged by Sweeteners”
- American Heart Association: “Carbohydrates”
- Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health: “Added Sugar in the Diet”
- American Heart Association: “Sugar 101”
- American Heart Association: “Can Processed Foods Be Part of a Healthy Diet”
- BMJ Open: “‘Ultra-Processed’ Foods Make Up More Than Half of All Calories in US Diet”
- Cell Metabolism: “Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of AD Libitum Food Intake”
- NCBI: BMC Medicine: Insulin Translates Unfavourable Lifestyle Into Obesity”
- Mayo Clinic: “Type 2 Diabetes”
- American Heart Association: “Cardiovascular Disease and Diabetes”
- American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture: “Where Does Sugar Come From?”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Diabetes: What’s Insulin Resistance Got To Do with It?"
- AHA Journals: Circulation: "Cost-Effectiveness of the US Food and Drug Administration Added Sugar Labeling Policy for Improving Diet and Health"