Added sugars have increased in diets in the United States and many other industrialized
countries over the past 30 y. Controversies have arisen, because some investigators
have suggested that sugars, in general, and sugar-sweetened beverages, in particular,
may be associated with increased risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, heart disease,
and other serious health conditions. Many of these arguments have been based on epidemiologic
studies, randomized clinical trials, and theoretical constructs.
Results of randomized clinical trials have been inconsistent. The Dietary Guidelines
for Americans and the AHA have published similar recommendations for added sugars.
The debate among the public is complicated by confusion over the terms “fructose,”
“high fructose corn syrup (HFCS),” and “sucrose,” with many people believing that
there are metabolic differences between HFCS and sucrose. This confusion persists
despite the fact that both the American Medical Association and the Academy of Nutrition
and Dietetics have issued statements reporting that both of these sugars are essentially
equivalent. Furthermore, there is a broad scientific consensus on the metabolic equivalence
of HFCS and sucrose.
With this as a backdrop, 5 leading experts in the metabolism and health effects of
fructose, HFCS, and sucrose gathered for this symposium to present data and discuss
and debate relevant scientific findings related to the metabolism and health effects
of these sugars.
The symposium’s first speaker was John White, a sugar biochemist and Founder and President
of White Technical Research. Dr. White provided detailed evidence concerning the metabolic
equivalence of HFCS and sucrose. He reminded the audience that fructose is rarely
consumed by itself in the human diet. It is virtually always consumed in combination
with glucose, whether it is in carbonated soft drinks, fruit juices, or many fruits
and vegetables. Dr. White presented a detailed discussion concerning the biochemistry
and metabolism of sucrose and HFCS and contrasted this with studies done on pure fructose
compared with glucose, often delivered in dosages above normal population consumption
levels. Dr. White provided data demonstrating that the amount of glucose in the human
diet from all sources far exceeds the amount of fructose from all sources. He concluded
that fructose is not increasing in the human diet and that good cause and effect evidence
does not exist that uniquely links the metabolism of fructose from normally consumed
sugars at typical dosages to a variety of adverse health conditions.
The second speaker, Dr. George Bray, Chief of the Division of Clinical Obesity and
Metabolism at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, presented data documenting
that sugar consumption has risen dramatically in the United States in the last 100
y and particularly in the last 30 y. He raised a special concern about soft drink
consumption, which has also risen dramatically during this period and is the leading
source of fructose in the American diet delivered either through sucrose or HFCS used
to sweeten beverages.
Dr. Bray provided a summary of epidemiologic evidence showing an association with
soft drink intake and obesity, metabolic syndrome, gout, and fatty liver disease.
He then reviewed recent studies that suggest that soft drink calories are less satiating
than calories from solid foods. Dr. Bray concluded by reviewing 3 randomized controlled
trials of sugar-sweetened beverages. One 10-wk trial demonstrated weight gain in the
group consuming sucrose-sweetened beverages compared with Aspartame-sweetened beverages.
The second study demonstrated weight gain and increased blood pressure in sucrose-sweetened
beverages compared with Aspartame-sweetened beverages. Dr. Bray noted that trials
comparing fructose to glucose showed increases in both TG and de novo lipogenesis
in the fructose arm. Dr. Bray reviewed findings from a recent study that compared
sugar-sweetened beverages to diet beverages, milk, and water that reported increased
visceral fat and increased fat deposition in liver and muscle.
The third speaker, Dr. Robert Lustig, Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the University
of California, San Francisco, presented evidence supporting his theory that sugar
at high levels may be “toxic” and is metabolized in the liver in ways that are similar
to ethanol and different from glucose. Dr. Lustig depicted detailed biochemical pathways
to support his assertion that fructose may be preferentially metabolized into fat
by the liver, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes,
nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and hypertension. Dr. Lustig also presented animal
data in support of his theory that sugar is “addictive.”
The fourth speaker at the symposium, Dr. James Rippe, cardiologist and Professor of
Biomedical Sciences at the University of Central Florida, presented evidence from
recent randomized controlled trials comparing HFCS to sucrose at levels up to the
90th percentile of population consumption for fructose. These studies demonstrated
that by every parameter measured thus far in humans, HFCS and sucrose are metabolically
equivalent. He also presented evidence that studies comparing pure fructose to pure
glucose do not accurately represent human nutrition, because neither of these substances
is consumed by itself to any appreciable degree in the human diet. Dr. Rippe presented
evidence from randomized clinical trials that consumption of neither HFCS nor sucrose
led to increases in blood pressure, dyslipidemia (with the exception of slight increases
in TG), obesity, metabolic syndrome, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, or ectopic
fat deposition in muscles.
Dr. Rippe challenged Dr. Lustig’s and Dr. Bray’s interpretation of de novo lipogenesis
and provided data from a variety of researchers demonstrating that de novo lipogenesis
amounted to a minor pathway in the overall human energy economy (on the order of 1–5%
of fat generated compared with the 100–125 g of fat consumed). Dr. Rippe concluded
that despite widespread scientific agreement on many issues such as the equivalence
between HFCS and sucrose, the public remains very confused on these issues. He called
for further randomized clinical trials to resolve the remaining controversies.
The final speaker, Dr. David Klurfeld, National Program Leader, Human Nutrition, USDA-Agricultural
Research Service, provided an overview of what government agencies consider in the
debate over added sugars. He noted that federal agencies rely heavily on evidence-based
guidelines such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and RDA from the Institute
of Medicine when developing nutrition policy. He noted that current levels of added
sugar consumption are within the guidelines from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans
and the Institute of Medicine. Dr. Klurfeld concluded that portion size and overall
caloric consumption were more likely causes of obesity than simply blaming sugar-sweetened
beverages. He stated that the claim that sugar is “toxic” does not pass the test of
face validity and that although Americans consume too much sugar, it is only one factor
in a poor dietary pattern. He noted that regulating or taxing sugars is a political
decision and that insufficient nutritional data exist to justify such a decision.