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Consequences of dietary sugar consumption: A historical perspective

ByCrossFitNovember 19, 2019

This brief 2019 article reviews the timeline and consequences of the dramatic increase in sugar consumption in the U.S. and Western world.

Sugar intake first increased dramatically during the Industrial Revolution (1750-1900) as the availability of sugar-laden processed foods (e.g., cereals, soft drinks, candies, ice cream) increased and cost decreased. Alongside this increase, rates of diabetes and metabolic disease have increased more or less continually, with the only exceptions occurring during the food shortages of World Wars I and II.

Beginning in the 1950s, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), a sugar industry-funded group, supported research to divert attention from the link between sugar and metabolic disease. One researcher who received such funding, Mark Hegsted, would later become head of nutrition at the USDA and draft an early edition of the 1977 Dietary Guidelines that pointed to saturated fat — not sugar or carbohydrate — as the cause of increasing rates of heart disease. Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns have written extensively on the lasting consequences of the scientific distortions that occurred during this period.

Today, an estimated 47% of all added sugar consumed by Americans comes from sugar-sweetened beverages, and 75% comes from sweetened drinks and snacks. Given the concentration of sugar in this select group of foods and the increasingly clear links between sugar and obesity, diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver, and other forms of metabolic disease, groups like Action on Sugar, led by Aseem Malhotra, support marketing restrictions, taxation, and other actions to reduce consumption of added sugars.

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