On the Money

Sugar vs. fat debate gets new life after study casts doubt on consensus

Sugar vs. fat
Sugar vs. fat

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, but the debate over what exactly causes it rages on.

New research published in the Journal of American Medical Association has thrown the previously accepted consensus into doubt. The study uncovered evidence showing that the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists in the 1960s to publish a review that condemned sugar as a risk factor behind coronary heart disease. Instead, the scientists focused the role of cholesterol and dietary fats.

No disclosure was made in the review that funding from the sugar industry was received. However medical journals did not require funding disclosures until the mid-1980s.

Laura Schmidt, a professor at the University of California San Francisco and one of the co-authors of this investigation, said the review helped play a role in shaping government dietary policy and its evaluation of the safety of sugar.

Warnings about the harmful health consequences of fat remained part of the government's dietary guidelines and have spurred low-fat diets.

"We had the anti-fat craze and we were eating SnackWells, that have no fat but are very high in sugar, and we were all eating margarine instead of butter," Schmidt told CNBC's "On the Money" in an interview.

"While the sugar consumption was going up in the 80s and 90s, we also witnessed a tragic obesity epidemic," Schmidt added.

Kelly Loughlin | Getty Images

Added sugars are the types that do not occur naturally in food. That involves dropping in a spoonful of sugar into your coffee, or a food company adding the sweetener during processing.

Based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet, a 10 percent cap would equate to 200 calories total. To put that in perspective, a 12oz can of coke contains 140 calories or 70 percent of the daily limit. Yet Americans on average exceed the limit, consuming 13 percent of their calories from sugar.

Courtney Gaine, the president and CEO of the Sugar Association, said those limits are not present because there is a direct link to obesity, diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

"The government would like to see if we have a 10 percent recommendation, will that serve as a tool for people to have healthier diets," Gaine told CNBC.

"We all have a finite amount of calories we can consume and if we can keep our added sugars to 10 percent maybe we can meet all our nutrient needs within our calorie needs," Gaine added.

In addition to a daily limit, the government is taking it a step further by mandating food companies to change their nutrition labels by 2018. Now, they must include added sugars and note the amount and the percent of daily value.

Schmidt called this a "watershed event" but added more needs to be done.

"The next step is to address those federal food programs," said Schmidt. "Our national school lunch program considers ketchup to be a vegetable."

Such measures from the FDA, and potential changes to food programs would seem to hurt the sugar industry, but Gaine says the organization's message is about moderation and a balanced diet.

"[Is the sugar industry] concerned about sugar being dangerous? No, but we're always going to continue to strive to understand the science, contribute to the science and know everything about our product," said Gaine.

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