Sugar: If We Eat It, It Will Kill Us!

Cinnamon Rolls, Mmmm Luis Solis

"Are we sure about that? Shouldn’t we say, ‘Sugar: If we eat it, it may kill us?’” “And what about how much? Doesn’t it make a huge difference how much we eat?” “Right! If we don’t eat too much, you know, it may not kill us!”

Well, that’s right, of course. If we don’t eat too much, it may not kill us. And as we’ve learned from smokers, there are those who just will not die.

(Do you remember the woman from France who quit smoking at 99 because, she said, she was afraid it “might interfere with my health?” She lived to 121 — and then she died. “Aha!” you say. “But she was a smoker! So what did she die of?” At 121? Old age, probably.)

In any event, in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a major study February 3 that found that consuming “added sugar” can produce fatal heart problems. Even in normal-weight people or thinner people.

The CDC’s release put it this way: “Having a cinnamon roll with your morning coffee, a super-sized sugary soda at lunch, and a scoop of ice cream after dinner will put you smack in the highest risk category in our study, the first national study tying sugar consumption to fatal heart problems. That means your chance of dying prematurely from heart disease is nearly three times greater than the risk for people who eat food with only a little added sugar.”

How many calories are we talking? Here are the estimates used in the CDC study (amounts are calories just for the “added sugar” used in manufacturing the product) —

  • One teaspoon of sugar — about 16 calories
  • One 12-ounce can, non-diet soda — 140 calories (9 teaspoons of sugar)
  • Typical cinnamon roll — 200 calories (13 teaspoons of sugar — will vary greatly, of course, from one roll to another)
  • One scoop chocolate ice cream — 80 calories (5 teaspoons of sugar)

The problem with “added sugar,” of course, is that it is purified sugar. If you eat a strawberry, the “natural sugar” in the berry is “diluted” or “cushioned” by the fiber and flesh of the berry, so the sugar — since it is still in the berry — is not too strong for our bodies.

“Added sugar,” however, is distilled out of, for example, tons of sugar cane until it is pure sugar, and the result is what we see in a sugar bowl or a sugar cube. Pure sweetener. Pure white. But so pure it is too strong for the human body.

And there is an important point here: Purified sugar — often called “added sugar,” or “excess sugar” — is still too strong for us to be eating, even when we put it on breakfast cereal, and it is too strong for us to be eating, even when we cook with it.

This may seem counter-intuitive, because many consumer products are intentionally too strong until we dilute them (an example would be condensed soup, to which we add water or milk) — but purified, or “added” sugar, remains too strong in our stomachs even after we digest the food in which the sugar was used.

If we use sugar as an ingredient in making frosting for cupcakes, the butter and cream that we mix with the sugar dilute the sugar to our tongue, so it doesn’t taste too sweet. But when we digest the frosting, the too-strong sugar molecules are still too strong for our bodies, yet those too-strong molecules enter the body’s blood stream, and damage the body in several ways.

The too-strong sugar molecules become part of the chemistry that increases the body’s blood pressure and its levels of unhealthy cholesterol and triglycerides, and appear to help increase the inflammation linked to heart disease.

These effects of “added sugar,” the CDC found, greatly increase our chances of developing fatal heart problems, whether we are heavy, normal-weight, or slim. Weight and obesity do burden the heart, but our weight was not involved in the CDC’s study of this threat to our hearts.

How much is too much? There’s little problem if sugar is 10% or less of total calories.

The CDC study concentrated on the percentage of an individual’s daily calorie intake from “added sugar.” Many food products are manufactured with added sugar, even if — like bread, tomato sauce, and salad dressing — they don’t taste sweet.

The “safest level” in the CDC study was set at “added sugar” making up 10 percent or less of a person’s daily calorie intake. Many adults consume around 2,000 calories a day, and the CDC found that 10 percent of 2,000 — or 200 calories of “added sugar” — did not constitute a significant cause of fatal heart problems.

But while 10 percent is generally a fairly “safe” amount of sugar, it isn’t very much sugar. It may take willpower and creative eating to keep to 10 percent or less. Ten percent of 2,000 calories in one day might be one cinnamon roll for breakfast, and no more added sugar the rest of the day.

Or 200 calories might be 2½ scoops of ice cream — and no other sugar that day. Just one 12-ounce can of non-diet soda, with 140 calories of added sugar, uses up nearly ¾ of the allowed 10 percent.

The small increase to 15% plus, however, increases the risk of fatal heart problems by about 20%.

Currently, in the United States, adults average 15% calories a day from added sugar. The U.S. Government set dietary guidelines in 2010 that say added sugar should account for no more than 15 percent of total daily calories.

But going above 15 percent, the CDC study found, increases the chance of fatal heart problems by 20 percent over the risk for those who keep their level at 10 percent or less.

“As sugar intake increases,” the CDC says, “the degree of risk climbs sharply.” While the U.S. adult average is 15 percent added sugar, one in 10 consume 25 percent or more in the form of added sugar. People in that category, the CDC found, were 3 times more likely to die of heart problems than were those whose sugar calories were 10 percent or less.

And that brings us back to where we began this discussion, to the person who enjoys —

• A cinnamon roll for breakfast

(“But no more everyday, right? — How about…maybe…just on Sunday?”)

• A super-size full-sugar soft drink and a sandwich for lunch

(“Nah…. Get a diet drink. Or water. A stick of chewing gum will take care of that hankering for something sweet.”)

• And a scoop of ice cream after dinner

(“Ice cream!? Ice cream!? That’s a generational thing. I haven’t had ice cream since my parents died, back in….”)

That cinnamon roll-soda-ice cream dessert diet is more than 500 calories a day, well over the 25% “3 times as likely to die of heart trouble” cut-off line if you’re a 2,000 calorie-a-day guy or girl— unless you already know you’re going to have that cinnamon roll just on Sunday mornings.

If you can do that, “Cheers! — And long life!”

As for the rest of us: We have a job to do.